Over the years there is one phrase from my middle school days that has always stuck with me: Don’t be a know-it-all. Back then, it was considered an egregious breach of playground etiquette to be that overbearing kid who thinks they know everything. Even as kids we have this innate sense of dislike for egotistical, domineering braggarts. But somewhere between the monkey bars and the board room, this all hallowed principle we once held so dear seems to have gotten lost. As we have grown into adulthood, some of us seem to have forgotten that being the know-it-all in the room isn’t a positive.
Like me, I’m sure you have encountered a few people in the workplace who seem to think it’s OK to run roughshod over their peers and, chances are, we’ve all fought the urge to tell them to “shove it” on more than one occasion. Often, these individuals are in positions of leadership and such an attitude can cause irreparable damage within teams. After experiencing a particularly glaring such incident, I found myself thinking – how does one avoid becoming “that person”? How can I be the inverse of a know-it-all?
Here are four traits we can put into practice in our own lives that will totally eclipse even the most outrageous know-it-all and ensure you don’t become one:
Humility seems to have gotten a bad rap lately. For some reason, it has become associated with timidity and even weakness. But I would argue just the opposite – rather than being a sign of inferiority, humility is a hallmark of those seeking wisdom and a powerful indicator of true leadership. The Economist stated it very well in their article “Davos Man and his defects”, saying that, “If leadership has a secret sauce, it may well be humility. A humble boss understands that there are things he/she doesn’t know. He listens: not only to the other bigwigs…, but also to the kind of people who don’t get invited, such as his customers.” This is fundamental to any person seeking success in their career – humility isn’t something that makes you look like a weakling. It is instead a trait worth cultivating and honing so as to become the kind of leaders who listen to those around them and guides others from an inner source of strength found only by those who know they always have more to learn.
Confidence is a tricky word. Depending on its use, the word can have both positive and negative connotations. Often it has become synonymous with ego and associated with people who think too much of themselves (ie, know-it-alls!). Or, just as frequently, we can try to push others towards an empty type of confidence that puts an overemphasis on the individual. But there is a case to be made for confidence when such confidence has humility, mercy and empathy for companions. This type of confidence is a balance between belief in ourselves and our own worth and the equally important belief in the worth and value of others. The balance part is what often gets overlooked in the equation. As professionals and leaders, we should seek this balanced approach where our opinion of ourselves – our self-confidence – is refined by our willingness to have a realistic understanding of our own knowledge and abilities and knowing when to ask for help from others.
Mercy is a word not often associated with the business world or leadership traits. Again, it is often considered the sign of a “soft” or weak person. But to undervalue the impact mercy can have for leaders and professionals is to grossly underestimate a crucial component of a person’s role within his/her team. Merriam-Webster states that mercy, “implies compassion that forbears punishing even when justice demands it.” Now, how is that relevant? So glad you asked! It is relevant because those who work with others (whether you lead the team or are a member of it) continually face situations where they must choose to either show mercy or to withhold it. We as bosses and coworkers hold the power to mete out ‘justice’ on our direct reports and even our peers. When someone makes a mistake, we can berate them for it (administer “justice”) or we can be merciful, invoking our right to forbear justice, choosing instead to uplift others and create learning/teaching opportunities, rather than sowing seeds of resentment and ill will. I can say from personal experience I have worked with both types of people – the justice driven boss and the merciful boss. The merciful boss used my mistakes as opportunities to teach me to be better as a professional. He was never demeaning and never belittled me – he led and taught me in a calm, kind way that for me (and the others in our department) earned my undying loyalty. I was willing to work harder for him, not because I was paid a fabulous salary or offered great perks, but because he inspired me to be better and continue to learn. He showed me mercy, even when I didn’t deserve it.
Often when I encounter professional know-it-alls, these individuals are either young and think they have something to prove, or they are more seasoned employees who have forgotten that they too started at the bottom. No age is immune to this phenomenon and here enters the need for empathy. To be clear, Merriam-Webster defines empathy as, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” The popular soft skill of emotional intuitiveness goes along with this (and for good reason, it’s important!). Empathy (and by extension emotional intuitiveness) is key to effective communication and general avoidance of know-it-allness (yes, I made that word up!). We as leaders and coworkers need to learn to lean on empathy when navigating the often-complicated waters of working with others. If we can make the commitment to empathize with those we work with, listening to them with the intent to understand not just respond, and truly put ourselves in others’ shoes, we can unlock untold levels of achievement. Focusing on and practicing empathy drives collaborative leadership and builds teams that work together like well-oiled machines.