How Do You Deal with KNOW IT ALLS?
By Ruth Davidhizar, RN, DNS, CS
Most people are generally liked by others, and a few make no impression whatsoever. However, in every group, there are usually one or two people who nobody likes. These individuals sometimes are those who act like they “know it all.”
While it would be nice to think that all health care professionals are secure, self-confident and easy to get along with, this, unfortunately, is not the case. People who act like they know it all can be found in any profession, including health information management (HIM).
Consequently, HIM supervisors may be confronted by the special employee who thinks he or she knows it all. Such an employee presents a special challenge to the supervisor, especially those who have had little experience responding to this behavior.
Characteristics of a Know-It-All
A know-it-all commonly evokes negative emotion from others. Such an impact may be produced from comments made by the know-it-all, such as, “No, the business manager said we can only run 50 copies on the Xerox machine and more copies must be sent to the printer. It doesn’t matter that you only have 52 copies,” or “No one is allowed to park in that parking spot over there because that is where the head nurse likes to park and she gets very angry if her space is taken.”
Negative emotions are not only demonstrated through spoken words. They also may be precipitated by what is written in reports or memos such as, “We never had to do it like this before. The director told us the other way was preferable, and I don’t think we should go against what she said.”
Those who act as if they know all the rules often appear to have friendships, yet the relationship is often limited to situations in which one person is manipulated or in which one or the other benefits. The relationship often lasts only a brief time or until the need for the relationship is met. Thus, employees who have a know-it-all attitude may find themselves lonely and without close friends.
Inflexibility is another characteristic of such an employee. One position is taken and held even if logic and reason indicate it as neither good nor wise. The position is presented as the only one that can solve the present dilemma, although it may be adjusted to oppose a change in opinion taken by a supervisor.
Dynamics of the Know-It-All
* Feelings of insecurity: The need to act like an expert often is rooted in an underlying sense of insecurity. Feelings of insecurity may spawn from a lack of affirmation one received as a child and may be lifelong. In some cases, the feelings may be situational, resulting from sudden stress in the workplace or at home. When threatened, acting as a know-it-all becomes a way of coping and bolstering self-confidence.
The person who is a know-it-all is eager to gain feelings of power and control. To do so, he or she may provide information that obviously will come as a surprise or create controversy. This behavior portrays the know-it-all as someone attempting to stir up emotions and actually causes disharmony among other employees or between employees and supervisors.
* Preoccupation with self: People who think they know everything often are anxious to express their personal beliefs and to be the center of attention. In an attempt to gain recognition, they may put forth personal feelings and beliefs as those that must be correct rather than recognize the feelings and needs of others. Because others’ thoughts may be discounted in an effort to promote personal feelings, the person who knows it all is often viewed as self-serving and self-oriented.
It’s often difficult for peers to relate to a person who is not well liked. In some cases, however, the individual may relate to peers, but have significant difficulty with those in authority such as supervisors. To an insecure employee, a supervisor may present more of a threat or be more of a challenge to manipulate.
When an individual acts like a know-it-all, he or she may be particularly frustrating to supervisors who want things done in a particular way. To manage the employee while keeping him or her from negatively affecting the work environment, supervisors may try a few strategies.
* Clarify the employee’s role: Employees who stir up controversy by promoting their ideas as “the best” often are on the fringe areas of their job descriptions and may actually be acting in an area in which they have no authority or responsibility. It is important to take the employee aside and to clarify his or her individual responsibilities and make clear the boundaries of the roles he or she should and should not take. For example, the supervisor could say, “You don’t have to be concerned with any discharge data, your role is to…”
* Get the know-it-all employee to listen and agree: It is important for the know-it-all employee to listen. He or she needs to understand and accept how the supervisor wants the job done. Approaches such as, “Tell me how you think this should be done based on what I said,” or “Because I’ve explained it to you, do you think you can do that?” can align the employee with the supervisor.
By giving the employee this special attention and providing him or her with information that is correct and that can now be shared with others may result in increased cooperation with the supervisor’s method.
* Increase self-esteem and security: Increasing self-esteem begins with the communication of respect. Respect is communicated by listening to what employees are saying. A supervisor who does not appear to care about the employees can hardly expect them to take a caring approach to co-workers, patients or employees in other departments. Listening to what staff members are saying is the most effective way to communicate caring and respect.1
Because “knowing it all” is often the consequence of poor self-esteem and self-concept, praising the employee for tasks well done will help to counteract these negative feelings.2 Large doses of affirmation and allowing the employee’s good qualities to be highlighted can decrease the employee’s need to act as a know-it-all.3
* Set limits on behavior: It is important to keep the employee who has a know-it-all manner under close observation. Knowing that this employee has a high potential for promoting controversy and dissension should prompt the supervisor to either keep this person under close observation or to assign him or her to someone who can control the behavior.
In most cases, know-it-all behavior should be confronted. When the know-it-all behavior occurs in a group setting, the supervisor will need to set limits as smoothly as possible and get back to the point. When a supervisor realizes that a power struggle is occurring within a group, care should be taken not to argue. A statement such as, “That is beyond the scope of this group and we can talk about that later,” will set necessary limits.
In most cases, the behavior should be addressed outside of the group; however, it is important that the group knows the supervisor can control an individual’s behavior and that they are in a secure environment. Employees are often consciously aware of other employees who cannot be fully trusted and who stir things up and often watch to see if the supervisor can be trusted to control this behavior. If the supervisor is not able to gain control, the group will quickly become divided and the supervisor’s ability to effectively lead will be damaged. A supervisor who appears too passive and who allows an employee to dominate the group will lose credibility and leadership ability.
* Provide tasks at which the employee can succeed: Assigning the employee to tasks that will provide a feeling of success is a useful technique to increase self-esteem and to tap the cooperative spirit.4-5 For example, if the employee can be given perfectionistic tasks that utilize his or her skills and that can be performed under the ready eye of the supervisor, it is possible that the know-it-all behavior will decrease through honest good work.
* Validate employee information: When an employee questions the way a supervisor handles a situation, saying something like, “Jane said that we should do it like this. It’s not quite how you said to do it, but she said that is the way they had always done it before you came,” the supervisor should immediately call Jane into the room and repeat the way the job is to be done.
The demonstration may be ended with a comment such as, “Do you understand how I want it done, Jane?” This confrontational technique will let the employee know that the supervisor is aware of her dissension and that it will not be tolerated. Without such confrontation, Jane will be free to say whatever she wishes and the supervisor’s directions will not be accurately executed.
Most supervisors must deal with difficult employees from time to time. By understanding the dynamics of the behavior of know-it-all employees and by using strategies that focus on their underlying feelings of inadequacy and their difficulty with authority figures, the problem can be managed, resulting in a calmer work environment for all.6
1. Davidhizar, R. (1992). The path of least resistance. American Journal of Nursing, 92: 56-58, Dec.
2. Graham, G., & Unruh, J. (1990). The motivational impact of nonfinancial employee appreciation practices on medical technologies. Health Care Supervisor, 8, 9-17, April.
3. Stull, M. (1986). Performance feedback: A question of source credibility. JONA, 16(4), 17-18, April.
4. Boyer, P. (1987). Tapping the cooperative spirit among your staff. Hospital Supervisor’s Bulletin, 569:1-7, Nov. 15.
5. Goddard, R. W. (1984). Motivating the modern employee. Management World, 13(2); 8-10.
6. Farabaugh, N. & Davidhizar, R. (1988). The immature employee. AORN Journal, 47(5), 1260-1263, May.
Ruth Davidhizar is assistant dean and chair of nursing at Bethel College in Mishawaka, IN. She is a regular contributor to ADVANCE Newsmagazines.