How to Steer Clear of Know-It-Alls and Trust Your Own Instincts in Business

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Rise above the noise of the know-it-all brigade and give yourself some credit. By Karen Roter Davis (General Manager, Urban Engines)

This post originally appeared on Karen's blog.

One of my favorite recurring Saturday Night Live characters from the Phil Hartman days is “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.” Hartman tells the jury:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’m just a caveman. I fell on some ice and later got thawed out by some of your scientists.Your world frightens and confuses me! Sometimes the honking horns of your traffic make me want to get out of my BMW… and run off into the hills, or wherever…. Sometimes when I get a message on my fax machine, I wonder: “Did little demons get inside and type it?” I don’t know! My primitive mind can’t grasp these concepts. But there is one thing I do know – when a man like my client slips and falls on a sidewalk in front of a public library, then he is entitled to no less than two million in compensatory damages, and two million in punitive damages. Thank you.

Not surprisingly, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer wins his case. Since comedy is grounded in at least a grain of truth, I’ll make the bold leap to say it’s an exceptional demonstration of how effective someone can be, simply by being comfortable in his own caveman skin, and using what he knows to be successful — in his career and in life in general.

Having evolved since those caveman days, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of Know-It-Alls lurking around. I find this tendency odd. As time goes on, there’s so much more knowledge to absorb, and so many people (sometimes annoyingly and jarringly) rely on Google for immediate answers to questions.

Despite those trends, I’m sure you can identify with — either by observing others or personally, perhaps? — one or more of these four broad categories of Know-It-All behavior:

The Expert

These people truly have the relevant intelligence, expertise, and/or experience in their domains. Experts are comfortable and confident enough in their own body of knowledge to explain complex topics simply, and listen to challenges or new ideas.

Even if a subset of Experts bring a bit of ego along in their bag of tricks, more often it’s good to have a few of these people strategically placed throughout your team. Frozen Caveman Lawyer was an Expert persuasive storyteller — and Phil Hartman an Expert comedian!

[Sidebar: Experts aren’t expert in everything, and can still fall prey to these other Know-It-All tendencies with which they are less familiar. Also people may not be well-suited to manage or lead an organization just because they are Experts in another particular domain.]

The BizarroExpert

These people believe — and even may have others believe for various time periods — that they are Experts. They might be — in a parallel universe. But in the real world, they’ve got a lot to learn.

Telltale symptoms of a BizarroExpert include, but are by no means limited to (1) talking way more than they should in meetings about a topic with which they are relatively unfamiliar, (2) attempting to undermine true Experts’ credibility, (3) cultivating impatient, defensive, or condescending attitudes, (4) consistently answering (or not) answering questions in the supposed subject of expertise in a convoluted manner, (5) being relatively unproductive.

[Sidebar: A BizarroExpert shouldn’t be confused with a person who employs a fake-it-till-you-make-it approach, which is a healthy technique I wholeheartedly support when appropriate! BizarroExperts never “make it.” They just make it difficult for everyone else.]

The Want-It-All

Want-It-Alls don’t know everything. One thing they do know is that there are gaps in their knowledge. That’s ok for most people. But for Want-It-Alls, these gaps make them really uncomfortable. They don’t like to admit to themselves or others that they should defer to someone else’s expertise.

As a result, Want-It-Alls can ricochet back and forth between miring themselves in a huge amount of detail in the hopes of learning the subject in enough time and depth to feel at ease making a decision, and deferring a decision that requires them to depend on someone else. This can leave Want-It-Alls and their teams pretty frustrated and keep things from moving forward properly.

The “Misunderestimator”

Whereas a BizzaroExpert claims expertise in a particular subject matter, a Misunderestimator doesn’t believe much of any expertise is required. Why does this happen? Sometimes a Misunderestimator has had one too many hubris cocktails. But more often than not, misunderestimation is usually grounded in naivete — either because they are unfamiliar with or unwilling to consider the true issues that exist, or because Experts often make it look so darn easy, hiding the nuances and machinations that go into achieving their successes.

[Sidebar: Misunderestimations most commonly involve areas with no clear expert certification. For example, most people think only a doctor is qualified to perform brain surgery. But in cases where one doesn’t have the requisite letters one’s name, expertise can be harder to confirm. Common examples of misunderestimations in Silicon Valley center around marketing and public relations, sales and business development, and even angel investing and venture capital. These are domains which, to the untrained eye, “don’t seem that hard,” and admittedly, BizarroExperts often roam unchecked in the field of Experts. But successfully finding and managing those extended teams is the subject of a future post.]

Unhealthy Know-It-All Combinations

While some people clearly display one Know-It-All characteristic consistently, most people will demonstrate a combination of these traits over time. From what I’ve observed, Know-It-All behavior is less a steady state than a situational one. Not surprisingly, when Know-It-Alls get together, it can be contagious, with certain combinations particularly harmful to personal and team success. I mentioned the BizarroExpert already. But here are a few others to consider:

  • An Expert who is unable to think bigger picture can frustrate a Want-It-All and send him spiraling off course with too much data or lack of clear point of view.  Conversely, a Want-It-All can frustrate an Expert by asking for an astounding amount of unreasonably detailed backup information or analysis from the Expert before moving forward.
  • A Misunderestimator can drive an Expert nuts by making the Expert feel underleveraged by overlooking or invalidating his skillset. The Expert generally responds with more detailed information or analyses, which can seem unfounded or overcomplicated to the Misundestimator, thus continuing the cycle. Worse yet, the Misunderestimator can imply he’s a BizarroExpert, or defer to one instead!

What Do You Know?

So what do you do when you see unhealthy Know-It-All behavior start to thrive, either in yourself or in your organization?

  1. Trust yourself. You don’t need to know everything. Like Frozen Caveman Lawyer, knowing what you know, what you don’t, and whatever’s in between will serve you well. Not knowing something isn’t a weakness. It’s an opportunity. Treat it as a feature, not a bug.
  2. Learn how to trust others. Once you’re an Expert in knowing your strengths and weakness, you’ll be best positioned to identify the people with the skills, and the rapport with you that you need to succeed. For example, Expert managers aren’t necessarily all-knowing in any particular field of study. But they are Experts when it comes to hiring to their gaps in knowledge, team building, and delivering value.
  3. To ambiguity and beyond! “So, Karen,” you ask,“Is this all a long-winded way of saying that I should be comfortable with ambiguity?”

“Are you comfortable with ambiguity?”

Sigh. I find that question really unproductive, however it’s asked. Sure, part of it is to understand whether or not a person is secure enough to make decisions when information is incomplete, conflicting, and rapidly evolving.

However, there’s often a Know-It-All angle to this question; implicit in this “comfort with ambiguity” is that there’s a “best answer” to be found amidst its shroud that will reveal itself in hindsight.

So here are my three favorite responses:

  1. That depends
  2. Can you be more specific?
  3. Oh my gosh, I’m freaking out. How do I answer that?!

In all seriousness, what if making every “right” decision isn’t enough? What if “wrong” decisions still end in wild success? Most importantly, what if we never know which is which?

We need to go beyond comfort with ambiguity. We must feel comfortable in our own caveman skins. Trust that we’ve done our best with the knowledge we have. Build off that best work. And leave the search for knowing we’re right to the Know-It-Alls.

Photo credit: Wasant via Shutterstock.


About the guest blogger: Karen Roter Davis is General Manager of Urban Engines, a venture-backed, Silicon Valley startup already improving urban mobility for millions of commuters across the globe and their billions of trips taken each year. Prior to Urban Engines, Karen held leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies, including Google, and served most recently as Managing Director of GE Ventures, where she kick-started software and analytics investments to advance GE’s Industrial Internet capabilities across its multi-billion dollar industrial businesses.