I confess, I am a recovering ‘know-it-all’.

I am clever and well-educated, and I used to believe that my strength came from having all the answers.

'The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.' ~ Albert EinsteinClick To Tweet

When my husband and I first started dating, our arguments usually stemmed from one of two things: money (we didn’t have much, which made it stressful) and me correcting him. Relentlessly.

Initially I told myself I was saving him from having incorrect information… perhaps rescuing him from making an error in front of other people. Eventually my ‘know-it-all’ tendencies morphed from facts and figures – things that I could know and ‘prove’ – to the accuracy of memories for shared experiences and who said what, even extrapolations from existing knowledge, which were theories at best. To be quite honest, I’m not sure why he stuck around!

Eventually I began to notice a pattern…

No matter who won the argument (and I’m afraid to admit that it was usually me) we still had to have an argument, and we both ended up feeling pretty crappy afterwards.

It took me a while to realise that being right didn’t make me feel any better, really. And that it didn’t do much for him either!

Individual contributors and the currency of knowledge

In our working lives, we usually start as team members – individual contributors. We are expected to learn, and over time master, a set of skills and a body of knowledge. If we are lucky, we do this under the tutelage of an experienced and patient senior team member. Our ability to recall data and past transactions quickly and accurately is rewarded and applauded. We gain a reputation for working quickly, for responding with useful information and for supporting the team by having most of the answers…

Is it any wonder then, that many managers continue to exploit this skill long after its usefulness and ability to impress others has disappeared?

As a manager, it isn’t your job to have the answers. Your job is to create those conditions that you had… the environment where your team can learn, demonstrate their capability, test their capacity and make a few mistakes along the way.

But how do you make that transition? Everything you know has led you to believe that knowledge is the most valuable skill, and that figuring out the answers to new problems comes a very close second… yet now you’re telling me that simply isn’t true anymore?

It’s as though you woke up one day and somebody said “we don’t use money anymore. We use marbles. Your money is worthless. What, you don’t have any marbles? Well you better earn some then! Off you go!”

It’s disorientating. It’s bamboozling. It’s just plain weird!

Until it isn’t…

Know-it-all

The Know-it-all

Having to be the 'knower' or always being right is heavy armour. It's defensiveness, it's posturing, and, worst of all, it's a huge driver of bullshit.' ~ Brené BrownClick To Tweet

Have you ever worked with a ‘know-it-all’? Somebody who can never act on anyone else’s ideas? Someone who always has to have the last word? Someone who says “I told you so” when they are forced to follow someone else’s directions and it goes even a little bit wrong?

It’s exhausting if you try to overcome it or work around it, and the danger is, eventually, you just give up. “Yes Dave… great idea Dave… let’s do that Dave…”

No business can thrive if its people can’t contribute their brilliant ideas.

And the worst case scenario? If Dave just happens to be your boss.

The second-worst case? You are Dave.

How to put down the shield of ‘knowing’

In her book Dare to Lead: Brave work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts Brené Brown sets out her antidote for the leadership shield of “being a knower and being right” – being a learner and getting it right – employing curiosity and critical thinking skills to figure out the best answer with others.

As a leader, the ability to ask great questions plays a big part here.

But before you can do either of these things, you have to have the presence of mind to realise you are doing it in the first place… or at least be sufficiently open to feedback that you allow someone to tell you you’re a know-it-all without biting their head off…

And, even when you do know the answer, exercise generosity by letting others have the thrill of figuring it out for themselves!


If you think being a ‘know-it-all’ is something you need a hand with, you might like to join our virtual coaching network. No commitments, no judgement, just great advice from the world’s leading thinkers, speakers and writers, delivered to your inbox on a Monday morning… What better way to start the week! And if you’ve read it all and seen it all before, you’re welcome to say “I already knew this” and I won’t mind!

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