How to Work with a Know-It-All at the Office
Do you work with a know-it-all at the office? If so, does this scenario sound familiar to you?
Ashley has been doing her current job for three years. She’s an experienced employee and rarely has to ask for help. Her boss has delegated additional projects to her and she’s proud to have completed them all successfully. She’s also filled in for the boss when he’s been on vacation. Ashley works well with her team members and feels they respect her—all except Tyler, the team know-it-all.
She’s about had it up to her eyeballs with Tyler. He has a smug, superior attitude and lives for treating others like they don’t know how to do their jobs. Ashley has talked to a couple of her coworkers about it, and they feel the same. Worst of all for the women in the office … Tyler is the ultimate “mansplainer.” (Author’s note: This isn’t an article bashing guys, so if it makes you feel better, switch Ashley’s name to Peter and Tyler’s name to Susan and reverse the roles. Being a know-it-all is not gender-exclusive, right?)
How does ANYONE work with a know-it-all?
Know-it-alls think they know everything. They feel superior, are dismissive of others’ opinions, are unwilling to listen to others, and love to tell others how to do their job. Know-it-alls like to hear themselves talk. This behavior may become so ingrained that it becomes part of the know-it-all’s personality. The bottom line is that they don’t know any other way to act.
They come off as self-centered and pompous and easily irk you, especially if you know how to do your job well. You bite your tongue when he starts telling you what you already know. You bristle when she talks down to you. But there’s an effective way to deal with know-it-alls, to gently put them in their place without sounding like a know-it-all yourself.
The key to dealing with these types is to use tact and assertiveness. When the know-it-all tells you how to do your job, speak up, say thank you, and then add that if you need help you’ll be sure to ask. This may put an end to the behavior. If it doesn’t, take the person aside and have a heart to heart. Explain how his or her actions make you feel. Allow them to save face by acknowledging that you think he or she is smart. But be prepared, because the person may not back down and take responsibility.
In addition, understand that you’re not going to completely change this person’s behavior toward others. Your goal is to stop the behavior that’s directed at you. If you’re able to do that, then you’ll be able to move forward and work with your coworker on a level playing field.
Ashley has tactfully mentioned to Tyler that if she needs help she’ll ask him, but he’s continued to treat her as though she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Earlier today, during a meeting where she was not present, Tyler alluded to the fact that he helped Ashley complete a project when he hadn’t. One of Ashley’s coworkers was there and thought Ashley should know what happened. Ashley fumed about it for a night and decided it was time to confront Tyler directly.
5-step method to resolve issues with a know-it-all while remaining professional and diplomatic
Before Ashley approached Tyler, she took time to calm down and diffuse her anger. She thought about what she was going to say and also how he’d respond. Thinking about the situation increased her confidence when she spoke to him.
Step 2: Gain a Better Understanding
When they took their afternoon break, Ashley said: “Tyler, there’s something I want to talk to you about. Do you have time for us to go outside for a few minutes?” Tyler nodded.
“During the meeting today, it really bothered me that you said you had to help me finish the project, especially when I had already completed it when you asked me what I’d been working on,” Ashley told him. (“I” phrase) While I appreciate that you were trying to help, when you said that it made me feel devalued.” (understanding, “I” phrase) Ashley spoke assertively and tactfully, maintained eye contact, and presented a confident demeanor by standing up straight and allowing her hands to fall naturally at her sides.
Ashley then kept quiet and allowed Tyler time to respond. He looked up and away from her, as though he was replaying the events of the meeting in his mind. Then he looked at her and said: “Sorry. But when you told me what you were working on, I’d already completed a project like that. I just wanted to let you know how I handled it.”
“Okay,” Ashley said. “So even though I didn’t ask for help, you thought you needed to help me.”
“Yeah,” Tyler admitted. “When I did that project the boss was very pleased with my work.”
“But again, even though I didn’t ask for help, you thought you needed offer your input?” Ashley asked.
Tyler shrugged his shoulders and nodded. “I didn’t mean anything derogatory by it.”
Step 4: Offer Your Best Solution
Ashley threw him an olive branch. “Look, Tyler, I appreciate that you’re intelligent and are very good at what you do. I hope you appreciate that I’m also intelligent and know what I’m doing. I’ve been on the job for three years, and I’m proud that I’m good at what I do. When the boss assigned the project to me, he did so because he was confident that I’d do a good job. Because I don’t want to continue to feel devalued when you offer input, I’d like for us to resolve this.” (compromise)
She continued. “I’d appreciate it in the future if you respect that I know what I’m doing. I’d also like to know I can count on you when I need help, but unless I ask, I’d like to be able to complete my projects by myself without your input.” (compromise)
Tyler didn’t say anything. He looked a little peeved.
“Can you agree to that?” Ashley asked. (compromise)
Ashley smiled warmly, and Tyler’s look softened. “Yes, of course I’ll agree to that. I’m sorry I’ve made you feel that way.”
“Thank you,” Ashley said. “I’m glad we talked this out because I do respect you, and I wouldn’t want anything like this coming between us.” (resolution, reconciliation)
Why This Works
Ashley could have kept quiet and continued to put up with Tyler’s superior attitude, but she’d had enough and knew it was time to speak to him. By thinking first, then speaking assertively and respectfully, she had a constructive conversation with him.
When she took the time to compliment Tyler on his job knowledge, he was more open to agree with the compromise she offered. While Ashley understood that Tyler wasn’t going to change his personality, she was pleased that he agreed to change his behavior toward her.
Something to Think About
Consider that the know-it-all may display this personality trait because of a deep-seated insecurity and lack of confidence. Some people who feel inferior try to act superior as a defensive mechanism. If you suspect this is the case, tread lightly, compliment your coworker when you can, and try to help him or her gain confidence.
Applying the Approach
Apply the following principles when dealing with a know-it-all:
- If it doesn’t cause you a problem, it may be best to ignore the behavior.
- If the person’s behavior starts getting on your nerves, it’s time to directly confront your coworker so that you can resolve the conflict.
- Think and plan how you can assertively speak up and tactfully let the coworker know you don’t need the help or unsolicited advice.
- Let the coworker know how the behavior makes you feel.
- Define the problem and ask the coworker if he or she understands how you see it.
- If you reach a stalemate after offering a compromise, compliment the know-it-all on what he or she does particularly well, as this will usually change this person’s attitude toward you.
- Reiterate that you also know what you’re doing.
- Add that if you do need help, you’ll be sure to ask for it.
- After gaining agreement on your proposed solution, offer phrases of resolution and reconciliation.