There is no expert as authoritative – in his or her own mind – as the know-it-all.
No one is more sure that he or she is right about everything, that he or she knows the exact right thing to do and when exactly to do it.
Even if that makes the more experienced people in the room roll their eyes in disbelief.
Such was my experience this week when I walked into a pitch meeting for a new client.
The know-it-all in the room quickly revealed himself, and sadly, it was the CEO!
His behavior was textbook: he found his way into every conversation and answered questions not even directed at him. He acted as though he was the smartest person in the room despite having little to no experience in the area under discussion.
While we can politely jest about this CEO’s behavior, it can pose a real problem when your resident know-it-all keeps on getting in the way and shutting down key decisions or suggestions. Or, if we are honest with ourselves, when that person is you or me.
We call this misplaced confidence the above average effect, which is a cognitive bias that causes us to overestimate the positive and underestimate the negative relative to others around us.
Think of it as an organizational flu – it infects everyone that it touches and has the ability to inhibit real growth.
But like any infection, rooting it out begins with recognizing its symptoms:
Symptom #1: We Are (Always) Better Than the Competition
Healthy competition is good. Even motivating.
But believing we are better than the competition anchors us to the notion that positive or negative trends will continue to go in our favor. In our above average world, we believe that we know best. This bias clouds judgment and results in an underestimation of the competition, a misunderstanding of the needs of customers, and a belief that change is not required to maintain current success.
Remember, being better than the competition is a mirage; a fleeting state of being that can change in a moment of innovation or crisis.
Instead of trying to be better, try to be different. That is, how are you and your company different from the competition? Being different allows you adapt to change more effectively. Being different not only allows you to establish the playing field, but allows you to control it.
Symptom #2: Everyone Should Be Like Me
When executives who suffer from the above average effect compare themselves to others, they tend to highlight their own strengths and focus on everyone else’s weaknesses. Suffice to say, this doesn’t help companies build and maintain high performance teams who value diversity of skills. Instead, these executives overvalue the traits they believe have made them successful and devalue those traits that have made others successful.
Think of it this way: these executives play checkers, where things are either black (their way) or red (your way). Instead of playing chess, where each piece is different, but each is most effective when used in their area of strength.
Symptom #3: Failure Is Never an Option
It’s not that above average effect executives aren’t afraid of failing. They are. And profoundly so.
They just do a good job of covering it by being overbearing, controlling and passing the blame. Because, well, they know better; so if a plan fails, it’s clearly not their fault.
Ultimately, this false belief results in an unhealthy view of risk. And you’ll see this when sales teams set unrealistic goals or when your boss is sold on an idea and requires you act on it, no matter how bad it is.
Healthy people try, fail, learn from their failures, and try again. If you are not failing every so often, then you are likely not taking enough risks. And if you can’t remember the last time you failed at something, then chances are you aren’t growing as much as you think.
So how do avoid succumbing to the above average effect?
* Remember that we are not as good as we think.
Confidence is good; overconfidence is dangerous. I think the best executives are acutely aware of how much they don’t know. They have no need to be the smartest person in the room, but have a real desire to learn from colleagues, staff and friends.
And the easiest way to do that is to be open, show an interest in each other’s success, and create an environment of positive exchange that provides value for everyone.
* Our competition is better than we think they are.
While I was sitting in that pitch meeting this week, the CEO told us anecdote after anecdote as to why his company was superior to all of his competitors.
Just like him, we weave stories around the market and our competitors in a way that make us seem the most favorable and likely to succeed. This helps us feel safe and in control. It’s an unfortunate fable that does more damage than good.
Instead, ask yourself whether the competition can solve a problem I’m trying to solve better than me? The sooner you’re honest and get to the point where you’re outlining the competition’s advantages, the sooner you can work to offset those advantages and create some of your own.
* We are the sum of our choices. Don’t play victim.
Executives suffering from the above average effect are quick to assign blame and pull out all the excuses as to why something did or did not happen.
But by not owning up to our actions, we are taking away our part in doing anything different. We simply remain stuck while we continue to complain and feel miserable in our status quo of negativity. Break free by making a move, doing something different, or trying something new. Grow.
And growth means we must fail occasionally. By doing so, we learn how to avoid mistakes, gain credibility, cultivate our support systems and keep focused on what matters most.
Walking out of that pitch meeting this week, I do admit to fighting the urge to tell that CEO, ‘since you know it all, you should know when to shut the heck up.’
But instead, I took the meeting as a reminder what not do.
And to remember that it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.