Are You or Someone You Know a Know-It-All?
Is it working out for you?
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
Do you know the feeling of coming across someone who seems to think they know everything? Who appears to be convinced that their way is the only right way and that everyone else should follow their lead?
You probably do, because these kinds of people are everywhere. They’re your co-workers, your friends’ family members, and even sometimes our bosses at work. Why is it hard for us to embrace our ignorance?
Know-it-alls ruin everything. That is, they ruin everything for themselves.
No one likes a know-it-all — at least not for long. They annoy their co-workers, bore their family members, and irritate their friends.
Know-it-alls are often overconfident about their abilities at work (often because that’s where they spend most of their time).
So what happens when these people get a promotion? A new position? When they go from being someone’s boss to being their boss’s boss, it’s even more crucial that they’re right.
And yet, research shows that know-it-alls are wrong way more often than the rest of us — and when trying to be right all the time turns out not to pay off for them, what will become of these self-assured individuals?
Can you be wise if you don’t know how much you don’t know?
What drives Know-It-Alls?
Most people learn early in life that there are few worse things than appearing ignorant in front of others. And so we dread looking stupid, and we work hard at avoiding situations where our lack of knowledge is likely to become apparent.
No wonder, then, that we want to be seen as “experts” or as people who know a lot about a particular topic. We may come by this desire legitimately — by dint of our hard work and innate talents — or not.
But whatever the reason for wanting others to see us as bright, it’s also clear that most of the time, we don’t mind looking dumb once in a while.
While no one wants to be viewed as ignorant all the time, pretending to know everything leads only to creeping self-doubt and anxiety over screwing up royally — which certainly isn’t suitable for everyone.
Enter Know-it-alls: People with excessive confidence in their knowledge. Know-it-alls are not the bright kids in school who always raise their hands first — they’re also likely to be those people who ask questions far later than most of us would dare, overconfident that they already “know the answer.”
They never admit it when they don’t know something; they think they know more than most people about pretty much everything.
So what happens when these individuals move up in rank? Given their extreme confidence and resulting productivity, you might expect them to do even better at work now that there’s more responsibility on their shoulders.
And if some studies are right, this is what happens: High performers often step up their game when given a new assignment or promotion. They are likely to spend more time on tasks they think are essential, which leads them to do a better job.
Knowing what you don’t know is the first step towards understanding yourself better. At least, this is how it should be. But Know-it-alls believe that they know it all, even when there’s room for improvement.
Research shows that their overconfidence causes them not to work harder but spend more time on tasks — regardless of whether they’re essential. Their blind spot isn’t about productivity; It’s about the effectiveness as well — after all, if you’re working on things you aren’t familiar with (i.e., something outside your area of expertise), chances are you’ll be less effective in doing them.
What can we do about being a Know-it-all?
Clooney’s character in Up in the Air is a real know-it-all — and yet, George Clooney plays him in a way that suggests this guy is hardly a villain. He has different priorities than most people: He doesn’t care much about what others think of him, and he has a knack for knowing what to say in any situation. In other words, while some people might see him as overconfident, it’s hard not to like him anyway.
If you want to be happy at work, the worst thing you could do would be to try too hard to appear intelligent.
So why do so many of us try? Because we think it’ll help us get ahead somehow — and who doesn’t want that?
If you’re spending most of your day trying to boost your image or prove that you know more than everyone else does, there are plenty of ways this can backfire on you.
Trying too hard to appear intelligent can make you a pushover. If you’re spending a lot of time trying to prove that you know something, there’s a good chance that this will overshadow your ability to focus on what other people need from you. And, in the end, it could lead your colleagues to start thinking of you as a doormat — one who is also not so very bright.
Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” In many situations, appearing ignorant about something is better than being branded overconfident and incompetent.
Studies have shown that people are likely to distrust those who claim to be experts without providing any proof when presented with new information. So while claiming expertise might seem like a good way of convincing others that you know what you’re talking about, it could backfire on you unless it’s true.
When in doubt, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” — at least not more than once. And if someone asks you a question and you know the answer, don’t wait too long to offer it up.
If you want people to remember that they can count on you to come through, being slow to offer your expertise isn’t the best strategy.
Know the limits of your knowledge before trying to impress others with it. That means keeping yourself honest about what you don’t know. The chances are that some people know more than you do.
If that’s the case, it would be better to know which areas to avoid when talking about your expertise. So instead of pretending to know more than you do, it’s better to acknowledge the limits of your knowledge.
If you’re not sure what your areas of expertise are, it might help to ask yourself this question: “What do I spend most of time talking about?” If the answer is something other than “something where I’m an expert,” then you need to work on finding your voice.
If you read this article, the chances are that you’ve had a know-it-all in your life. One of your parents or an older sibling always seemed to be the most intelligent person around. Or maybe it has been you?
But all good things must come to an end at some point, right?
I’ve been guilty of trying to impress people with how much I know, and it’s only now that I realize what a mistake this has been. When you become known as the know-it-all, people begin to trust what you say less. Nobody knows it all.
Even if it were possible to know it all, it wouldn’t be desirable if you think about it. Would it?
This article was first published in Bottomline Conversations.