Leading Difficult People, Part 1: The Know-It-All

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April 20, 2021

In the past several weeks, I have had a series of presentations with people who laid bare their very challenging personality styles. It is one thing to work with difficult people on a keynote or half-day presentation. It is an entirely different matter to work with them day in, day out.

This week, we will discuss strategies and tactics to manage a person who exudes confidence or overconfidence in all their responses – even when they are clearly wrong. This type of personality style is often referred to as a know-it-all.

In a presentation, when a person makes it clear through their interactions with me that they are a know-it-all, I will typically “tap the brakes.” I see if they are open to new information that might change their thinking. I try to provide additional information. I check the rest of the group to see if this is a group or individual issue. If the group is with me but the individual is unwilling to “come along,” I will (most of the time) move on. I am simply unwilling to lose a group for a know-it-all.

The trick is not to get caught up in the need to be right. I’m not there to prove anything. I’m there to provide information to the group in a way that is accessible and meaningful. They choose whether the information is compelling enough for them to change their minds. It comes down to the old joke: How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? It takes only one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.

3 Steps for Dealing With Know-It-Alls

Working with a know-it-all in an organization is a different matter because they need to be led on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. Anyone who manages someone with this personality style has had the experience of challenging them directly or calling them out on their mistakes. The know-it-all inevitably responds with defensiveness, hostility or both. The direct challenge approach too often leads to ill will for both parties, as well as difficulties and distance in the long term.

There is a better, more effective approach.

  1. Have them discover the gaps in their own knowledge and understanding. Have the person explain – in great detail – the concept they believe is correct. How does that work, exactly? Have them walk you through the process, step-by-step.
  2. Allow them to speak uninterrupted. Don’t try to correct them. Ask follow-up questions, displaying genuine interest, for deeper understanding and information. There will be a moment when you will both understand that more information is needed and that they don’t have all the information. This can be a humbling experience.
  3. Be supportive. Don’t gloat. This moment can open the door to collaboration in finding a new direction or the right answer to the problem or issue.

This approach can be a particular challenge if overconfident know-it-alls tend to trigger you.  Don’t let your ego interfere with your own progress, learning and growth. If a collaborative, positive outcome remains the goal, this is one path to achieve it.

This is just the first of four part series addressing personality styles that you may find in people who make work and life difficult.  The next blog will discuss a stubborn personality style.

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

Let’s keep cultivating our culture, together!

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