Everyone knows a know-it-all. And if you know only one, then consider yourself blessed. The know-it-all is the guy who, after you tell him what you paid for a new lawn mower, tells you he saw one for a lot cheaper. It's the woman who takes particular joy in pointing out the small typo in the report on which you worked frantically to meet an early deadline. They are those people who, wrapped in the luxury of hindsight, feel compelled to point out how you could have done things differently.
Don't get me wrong. Constructive criticism is invaluable. The problem is that this kind of criticism is not constructive. You can't turn back the hands of time to retype that report so why point out the typo? Perhaps the most egregious example of this I ever encountered was a guy at one company I worked for whose job it was to compile a report of all the mistakes he found in our newsletters each month after they were printed and mailed to subscribers. In one, he pointed out an article that was in the Time Roman font but seemed to have "a Helvetica space" between two words. I mean, come on. A) Who cares? and B) What are the chances of that particular error ever occurring again in the history of mankind? It did no good to point it out.
I once knew an executive who loved to assign small projects to people and not give them any details of what he wanted. It was only after you did your best and presented the end product that he tore it apart, making you start over from square one. It wasn't that what you did wasn't good, it just wasn't what he wanted. And he chose not to tell you what he wanted until the deal was done. This gave his ego some kind of boost I guess. What he didn't realize is that anyone can find fault with anything if it is their sole intention to do so. If you have no idea of the work and complexity that went into something, you can very easily fly in kamikaze-style and just defecate all over everything. The real sign of maturity and character is if you can resist the urge to do so when nothing can be changed anyway.
Know-it-alls can be very negative. Their mantra is "That won't work." It's the person who doesn't have much to do with a company-wide project while it is being developed, but is ever so happy to point out the failures once it's rolled out. (I've been told that the word for this is schadenfreudemeaning to get enjoyment from the troubles of others. However, I can never remember how to pronounce it. I keep wanting to say Schenectady—the city in New York. But I digress.)
What draws these people to smug superiority? I've been told that behind all such self-aggrandizing and fault-finding is low self-esteem. Somehow people with inferiority complexes don't feel as threatened if they can point out the shortcomings of others. For that reason, I've tried to be understanding. I figure if it affords their fragile egos some measure of balm, then I can turn the other cheek.
But it can get really tiresome. And I'm not quite sure of the reaction these people are expecting, either. Do they think that at some executive meeting in the future, the CEO will say, "You know, Harold down in data entry always seems to find the holes in our end-products. What say we run this multi-million dollar merger deal by him first?" Well, that's not going to happen. And no one is going to be rushing down to Harold's cubicle to get his first reactions if those reactions are always bad. He won't get a reputation for being savvy. He will get a reputation for being negative and annoying.
Have you learned how to deal effectively with a know-it-all? Perhaps you yourself know it all and would like to defend your position. Let's hear from both!
Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.