Taking the Helm: No one likes to work for a know-it-all

Aug 23, 2019 by Paul Ferdais

Taking the Helm: by Capt. Paul Ferdais

Sometimes it pays not to speak up. When those in charge find that everyone comes to them for every simple decision, it might be because of a larger problem and not just because they are the boss. They might have, without necessarily realizing it, created an environment in which they come across as all-knowing, and because of their top position, no one has reminded them to let others think for themselves. 

The captain is ultimately responsible for what happens on the boat, but that doesn’t mean he or she needs to make every single decision. Captains who have a strong, capable crew can rest assured that their team will succeed. Those captains can then focus on their own tasks instead of worrying about the various department heads doing the wrong thing. It’s up to those in charge to help build good judgment and decision-making skills in others, and encourage team members to come up with solutions of their own.  

Sometimes it can seem as if we are showing off, when what we are really trying to do is show what we know. If everyone is coming to us for answers, it might be a sign that we have been taken as a know-it-all or control freak, even though that was not our intent. 

People don’t want to work for a know-it-all because it’s frustrating and often infuriating. Why? Because it stunts personal growth. It causes people to disengage, which then leads to less creativity, ingenuity and ownership of outcomes. 

One thing anyone in a leadership role should avoid is showing off. People above you in the hierarchy won’t like it, and those who work with you will find it annoying. You may be the smartest individual in the room, but invariably the room, as a whole, will be smarter.

Finding the right moment to speak up is key. When discussions seem to stall or idea generation stagnates, offer some suggestions. If others are interested in what you have to say, proceed. If people turn away from your ideas, wait for another time. 

Also, the last thing you want to do is deliver an “I told you so” after the fact. If your solution would have been the best way forward and no one wanted to listen, saying something like “You should have listened to me” won’t help matters. It may make you feel better, but it won’t help the situation.

Use the following ideas to help you avoid coming across as a know-it-all.

Step back: Do you find yourself pushing your ideas over and over, and ignoring other approaches? Take a breath and step back. Nobody has ever died from taking a step back for a perspective check. Try prioritizing the team win over an individual win. Ask yourself, what if I’m wrong?

Listen: This means actually listening while another person is speaking instead of organizing your thoughts about what you’ll say next. Silence your inner voice and focus on what others are communicating. You may discover a thing or two.  When they’re done speaking, process and respond.

Ask questions: Questions are one of your most powerful leadership tools. Use open-ended questions that begin with “What do you think?” or “How would you do this?” Then let the others answer. It’s not a contest, so don’t shoot down an answer. Guide the conversation with other questions to help create an “aha!” moment in others. Make sure you understand what they are saying, and ask for clarification as necessary. 

Demonstrate humility: You may be positionally higher than those around you, but that doesn’t mean you are smarter or automatically right. It’s possible that you are wrong. Everyone has ideas that matter. Sometimes we need to enable others to shine.

Respect: Treat others with respect instead of constantly correcting, ignoring or tuning out people who think or act differently from you. Nobody wants to know how smart you are, especially if it always means they’re wrong. Remember, respect is earned. 

Smart people who know when to speak up and how to act on their plan are a special breed. Don’t waste opportunities showing off. Let your behavior speak for you. There are moments to step up and show others what you know, but it needs to be done in the right way. And that’s the challenge.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is owner of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com), and a commanding officer in the Canadian coast guard. Comments are welcome below.