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How to Deal with Your Workplace's Mr. or Ms. Know-It-All

A sample scenario:
Grace has been doing her job for three years. She’s an experienced employee and rarely has to ask for help. Her boss has assigned her additional projects, and she’s felt proud to have completed them successfully. She’s also filled in for the boss when he’s been on vacation. Grace works well with her team members and feels they respect her…all except Kyle, the team know-it-all. She’s about had it up to her eyeballs with Kyle, whose superior attitude and desire to treat others as though they don’t know how to do their jobs has gotten to her. She’s talked to a couple of her coworkers about it, and they feel the same.

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 the 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 actions make you feel. Allow her to save face by acknowledging that you think she’s 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.

Grace has tactfully mentioned to Kyle 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, Kyle alluded to the fact that he helped Grace complete a project when he hadn’t. She fumed and decided it was time to confront him directly.

Follow these 5 steps to deal with your office know-it-all:
Step 1: Think First
Before Grace approached Kyle, 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, Grace said: “Kyle, there’s something I want to talk to you about. Do you have time for us to go outside for a few minutes?” Kyle 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,” Grace told him. "While I appreciate that you were trying to help, when you said that it made me feel devalued.” Grace 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.

Grace then kept quiet and allowed Kyle time to respond. He looked up and away from her, as though he were 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.”

Step 3: Define the Problem
“Okay,” Grace said. “So even though I didn’t ask for help, you thought you needed to help me.”

“Yeah,” Kyle 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 to offer your input?” Grace asked.

Kyle shrugged his shoulders and nodded. “I didn’t mean anything derogatory by it.”

Step 4: Offer Your Best Solution
Grace threw him an olive branch. “Look, Kyle, 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)

Kyle didn’t say anything. He looked a little peeved.

“Can you agree to that?” Grace asked. (Compromise)

Step 5: Agree on the Resolution
Grace smiled warmly, and Kyle’s look softened. “Yes, of course I’ll agree to that. I’m sorry I’ve made you feel devalued.”

“Thank you,” Grace 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
Grace could have kept quiet and continued to put up with Kyle’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 Kyle on his job knowledge, he was more open to agree with the compromise she offered. While Grace understood that Kyle 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.

© 2014 Renée Evenson. All rights reserved.
This article was excerpted and adapted from Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People, by Renée Evenson. Used with permission of the publisher, AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

Are you having problems with communication at work? The AMA offers valuable resources to help, such as this webinar on solving communication problems.

About the Author(s)

Renée Evenson is a small-business consultant specializing in workplace communication and conflict-resolution strategies. Her previous books include Powerful Phrases for Effective Customer Service and Customer Service Training 101.