Having to always be “right” will ultimately prove “wrong”

No one likes a know-it-all. Yet, the world is full of folks who simply love to espouse their wisdom, opinions, and judgments trying to add value, show their smarts, pound their chests, exercise their control, cover their real insecurities (or just classic CYA), and in some cases just belittle the other person to make themselves feel better. More times than not, know-it-alls behave that way for all of those reasons. We have all been in these exchanges – either overtly or covertly. Nothing derails a meeting or any gathering more than the all-knowing executive, leader, or person. So what can we do to heighten our attention to these behaviors and avoid falling into the trap of being the know-it-all in the office?

A few thoughts:

1. Be like Sergent Schultz and know nothing.

Remember the old WWII comedy series Hogan’s Heroes and that hysterical overweight German guard at the prison camp “Sergent Schultz?” Every time something would go awry and Colonel Klink or one of the prisoners would ask Sergent Schultz what had happened, he would plump out his chest and say unequivocally, “I know nothing. Nothing!” I still laugh out loud thinking of this character – he played that part to a tee. Well, you and I both know – he knew everything about the issue – he just was keeping his nose out of trouble. There is some merit in this, actually. We don’t always have to have the answer. It is amazing what we can learn when we just be quiet and listen. Sure, we may think we have an answer’ or an opinion; yet, what can we learn if we wait to share it? What can we learn if we openly and actively listen to others’ opinions – without formulating our own response first? What sort of culture and environment can we foster when we sincerely want to hear others’ perspectives? What if every time we feel the urge to blurt out our opinions – we instead ask for someone else’s opinion? How would people’s perception of us change? What type of energy would be fostered between us and others on the team – and within the team itself.

2. Be like Switzerland and stay neutral.

Have you ever been in a meeting when the CEO or other senior executive asks a question and fast rising high-potentials clamor to provide the answer or suggestion. Then, the executive proceeds to give feedback on each answer or suggestion…you know what I mean: “John, good idea. Thank you so much – let’s pursue that thought.” “Amy, thank you. Interesting idea… well worth more investigation.” Then, Mark gives input – and the executive gives no feedback – at all. Just deadpan silence, and then moves on. Wow. Ok – John and Amy are riding high – feeling pretty darn good about themselves. How do you think Mark feels? I have been in the room when that has happened – and I can guess how he felt. He probably feels he didn’t add value, the executive thinks he missed the mark, and then Mark is embarrassed because everyone one in the room saw it, too. Do you think Mark will stick his neck out again? What do think the other executives take away from this exchange? How do you think they view the executive? How do you think they view Mark? Do you think this fosters open communication? What kind of culture is this breeding?

Compare that real example, with another executive team on which I served, where the leader encouraged open, rich conversations and brainstorm sessions. The leader, in this case, was simply masterful. We never really knew how/what he was thinking – other than the value he wanted and pursued was just openness and non-threatening dialogue. We were all eager to dive in. It was a safe environment. We viewed this as the ‘locker room’ – what we talked about was within the team. What happened or was said in the locker room, stayed in that room. We didn’t feel that every comment or idea or suggestion would be under scrutiny. In fact, we felt the opposite. This spawned incredible exchanges and the ideas shared were limitless. We were one of the highest performing teams on which I had the pleasure of serving. See the difference? As leaders, we own the environment we help create. And knowing it all and judging those on our team will shut down the communication and creativity faster than just about anything.

3. Be like the girl or guy on a first date and listen with interest – without interrupting and negative commentary.

Admittedly, it has been a while since many of us have been on a first date! So, instead, think of a first meeting – with a prospect, a potential new client, or an interview for an important position or new job. Typically, we are on our best behavior. We are really and truly interested in the other person. We ask questions – and listen. We look them in the eye – because we really want to see them. We aren’t so intent on what we are going to say next – because we are sincerely so interested in what they are saying that what we say next is often just a question to keep them talking! Don’t you love it when you are at the other end of that equation? I do. I love it when someone makes me feel like what I am saying is the most important thing they heard all day – and that I am the most important person in their world, at that moment.

I actually had that experience this holiday season. I was at a party, there were tons of people swarming around – many, many distractions. I, candidly, was having a hard time staying focused. Not my friend. He never let his eyes leave mine. He hung on every word. He actively was interested in what I was saying – and I knew it because he asked questions that encouraged me to keep talking. Now, lest you think this was ‘first date’ scenario – it wasn’t. This is a person whom I have known for years – and he treats me this way every time we are together. No surprise he is wildly successful, has a following that would impress the most hard to impress person, and has a circle of loyal constituents.

A final note on ‘first date’ behavior: we need to try not to negate what the other person is saying. That’s easy (we say) we would never argue on a first date. That is not what I mean.

This is the scenario I mean … I used to work with a person who admittedly was/is very smart and well-educated. Every time we engaged in conversation or a planning session, he would interrupt and negate ideas of mine or our colleagues. It went something like this: “You know, Sue, that is an interesting idea; however, x,y,z …” or “John, your insights are what you apparently observed; but, ‘x,y,z.’ EVERY SINGLE TIME. I realized that he would NEVER agree with anyone in totality – just on principle.

Marshall Goldsmith has written a phenomenal book entitled What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful. He actually denoted in his book the top 20 habits that inhibit executives and leaders effectiveness. No surprise – this use of ‘but, however, and no’ is one of them. It truly shuts people down. They get tired of trying to make their point. The constant one-upping with this negative slant is simply harmful to building mutually strong relationships. It is a very hard habit to break. At the end of the day, the loser will be the person doing the confronting. Simply put, it is a losing proposition to constantly negate and one-up someone.

My suggestion is when we can’t say something nice or supportive; just don’t say anything at that time. Smile. Listen. Hear the person’s perspective. (Remember the last blog on the Golden Rule?). Be on a first date in your mind. There will be another time and place to share thoughts and opinions. We will be amazed at the teamwork we will foster – people love to be heard, without a filter or judgment. And we will learn – I promise, we will learn.

In looking back on these three basic suggestions, maybe an easy way for us to remember how to not be a know-it-all is to imagine ourselves on a first date with Sergent Schultz in Switzerland!

Kidding aside, if nothing else, we will chuckle to ourselves which may help us recall that there is no harm (and in fact benefits) in knowing nothing at certain times, remaining neutral at certain times, and enjoying our first date experiences all the time.