How to Work with a Know-It-All

“That will never work,” the senior partner told me during my first job out of law school. I had asked if we should call the opposing counsel. “Why?” I countered. “Phone calls won’t work,” he replied. “We only write letters. You won’t get anywhere. You’re wasting your time.”

Sound familiar? Are you working with a person who is tied to a system or process and won’t budge? If so, you are working with the Complainer type known as a “Complicator.” I recently talked about Complicators on The Broadcast TV show. Here’s the segment:

Guess what I did? Yep – I called the opposing counsel and we resolved the entire case over the phone. He told me I was the first person from my firm to call him and he appreciated my reaching out.

Complicators a.k.a. “Know-It-Alls” are the people at work who complain with details to avoid change and maintain stability. It’s easy to spot Complicators because they say phrases like:

  • “This will never work.”

  • “We’ve already tried that before.”

  • “There’s not enough research to support it.”

  • “We need more details.”

  • “This is more complex than you think.”

With a passive-aggressive approach, they like to create systems, procedures and policies that aren’t easy to navigate. Masters of minutiae, they are the nitpickers, historians and micromanagers.

Complicators feel threatened when they don’t have all of the information. They block ideas that invade their turf by questioning and micromanaging the process. They repeatedly throw up roadblocks when their procedures and systems are at risk of being changed or innovated.

Actions that don’t work with Complicators:

  • Avoiding them or excluding them from meetings. While it is tempting to meet without them, Complicators criticize solutions created in their absence and become more protective of information and old systems. Don’t leave them out.

  • Telling them that they should just “get over it.” That type of language makes Complicators stick to their guns even more. They try to regain stability or control by defending their way of doing things and identifying problems with change.

  • Trying to change their minds. Many people revert to Complicator behavior when under stress. They spend a lot of time preparing their position and are stubborn or defensive when you try to change their thinking.

  • Asking them to have a more positive attitude. Complicators are more concerned with being right and having correct processes than improving relationships or their image.

To stop Complicators from nitpicking you to death, negotiate with them by doing the following:

  • Slow down your communication. Allow time to reflect or process the change and give them time to ask questions. However, set a deadline for that discussion.

  • Find a way to acknowledge the intellect that went into creating the Complicators’ systems or methods. They have a need to be correct and want to be appreciated for specific tasks.  You might say, “Mr. Complicator, you were correct that we really needed that new accounts payable system last year. It has been a big benefit especially in time saved.”

  • Present change as a logical next step and ask for their input to implement improvements. You might say, “Mr. Complicator, you were instrumental in our current accounts payable system and we’d like your input as we upgrade the system.” (Note: With this language, the Complicator also learns there is a possibility that he/she might be left off of the innovation team. Know what a Know-It-All hates worse than change? Not knowing the process or information.)

I know I can complicate things. However, it’s important to ask myself, “Is there a better route,” when I’ve committed to a path that may not be working.

Journey On and No Complaints!