On the Clock

How to Handle a Know-It-All Coworker

One in three people say they have an arrogant coworker who makes them want to quit their job. Here’s why you shouldn’t give up.

Within a month of starting as an account manager at a large advertising firm, Fred knew he was in for a rough ride. It had nothing to do with the long hours or the work itself and everything to do with his colleague Paul. Paul was a know-it-all: he would name-drop constantly, interrupt people to share his opinions, and always find a way to tell others how to do their job better. During one of Fred’s big client presentations, Paul sat at the table shaking his head and smirking the whole time.

Within six months of joining, Fred—unable to deal with Paul—was already looking for a new job.

There’s always a chance that they’re clueless about how their behavior is affecting others.

For many people, working with a know-it-all and other types of difficult coworkers can be highly unmotivating. According to a survey by Olivet Nazarene University, one in three people end up leaving their job due to an annoying coworker.

And while data from Korn Ferry show that improving company culture is one of the top three priorities for most business leaders today, it’s likely that culture-draining arrogant coworkers will always be around. But you can learn how to improve your relationship with such folks—and have it work in your favor. Here’s a play-by-play for how to handle a know-it-all coworker.

Step 1: Dip into your empathy well.

Difficult as it may be, career experts recommend trying to build a relationship with the person who’s causing you difficulty at work. Often, there’s a reason why your coworker may be acting arrogant—perhaps they feel misunderstood or insecure. If you approach them as an ally, and even ask for their help solving a tricky work problem, you may find they’re far less obnoxious to you down the line. After all, the person who thinks they have all the answers “wants to be seen for their knowledge and expertise,” says Allison Task, a career coach in Montclair, N.J. So seeking their advice can signal your desire to have a positive relationship.

Step 2: Understand where the confidence comes from.

If you’ve been empathetic and have determined that insecurity isn’t the source of the know-it-all’s behavior, a little reconnaissance can go a long way. See if you can dig into the person’s past work and find out what they did. Perhaps they grew sales by a third within a year, or were hired by management to overhaul your division. You may find that the arrogant coworker is actually trying to accomplish goals that align with yours, but it going about it in an obnoxious way.

Step 3: Express your concerns one-on-one.

Giving criticism isn’t easy, but if the behavior you’re seeing from your colleague isn’t changing and your work or psyche is suffering, it’s best to address it directly. “You can call someone out on this behavior,” says Frances Weir, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. A conversation may begin with something like, “Look, I want to let you know that I’ve been struggling with something you said recently,” or “I respect you and want to have a conversation about something that’s been bothering me.” By having the conversation one-on-one and offering specific examples of troubling situations, you’re giving the arrogant coworker room to express themselves. And there’s always a chance that they’re clueless about how their behavior is affecting others.

Step 4: Play conversational dodgeball.

When your best efforts aren’t enough, your only option may be to go into defense mode. You can subtly keep the know-it-all at bay by saying, “Thanks for that suggestion,” or “I’ll take that into consideration,” and letting them know you’ll reach out if you need help.

Another tactic to handle a know-it-all-coworker is to ask open-ended questions to get your point across. That’s because someone with this personality quirk inherently wants to feel in control of the situation. By asking questions in this manner, you can get a gauge on how they’re approaching an issue and then you can provide insight from a past experience with information to support your case. Your arrogant coworker may not listen, but at least you’ve given them something to think about. And if the problems with your colleague continue to escalate, career experts say it’s OK to rope your manager in for help.

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