Humility: The Cure for a Know-It-All

No one likes a know-it-all.

They’ve annoyed us all by talking down to us about anything and everything, even when it’s obvious they know far less than they believe. But know-it-alls don’t just ruin watercooler gatherings and dinner parties. When they rise to positions of power, they can wear away at productivity and trigger costly mistakes.


Joann S. Lublin wrote an entertaining article on the subject in the Wall Street Journal. She interviewed a number of self-professed former know-it-alls that caused major problems for themselves and their companies, such as losing over $2 million on a home purchase, hiring an unsuitable job candidate, and not asking subordinates for their input.

The know-it-all causes all kinds of professional headaches. They don’t try to learn about an issue or ask for help, which leads to poor decisions. They ignore some people or are condescending to others, which leads to a toxic work environment. They project a false aura of power and knowledgeability, which gets them promoted into jobs they might not actually be able to perform.

Right now, the United States has a perfect example of know-it-all leadership – President Donald Trump. Even before his election, he’s directly and literally said he knows it all. Axios compiled a list of all the things Trump has said he knows about more than anyone, including campaign finance, ISIS, the visa system, international borders, international trade, and drone technology, just to name a few of their nearly two dozen examples.

Despite the bravado, Trump’s declarations of expertise have created a culture of chaos in the White House and beyond. His claim that ISIS was defeated became his justification to immediately pull the U.S. military from Syria, a decision that caused confusion in the Pentagon and ultimately led to the departure of this secretary of defense. His insistence on a trade war with China has created new challenges for Apple and other American companies. And rather than tackle the numerous complex and technical issues along the U.S./Mexico border, he is insisting on a wall and walked out of negotiations to reopen the government when Democrats refused.

Though the political news of the day seems bleak, the know-it-alls in Lublin’s article took significant steps to improve their behavior. One made certain his managerial hires hold diverse viewpoints, and he encourages them to call him an idiot. Another gave his committee more power when making hiring decisions. All of them took a similar approach – they became more humble.

Humble leadership is the flip side of know-it-alls. Rather than assuming they know what’s best, humble leaders turn to their co-workers and ask questions in order to make the most informed decision possible. At Hogan Assessments, we define humility as self-awareness, appreciating the strengths and contributions of others, and openness to new ideas and feedback toward personal performance. Know-it-alls generally lack those three characteristics.

Furthermore, humble leaders become more successful than know-it-alls. They don’t allow their sense of self-worth to interfere with leading their organization to success.  A recent study revealed high levels of humility lead to higher rates of employee engagement, more job satisfaction, and lower rates of turnover. Humility is the antidote to know-it-alls.

Although Lublin’s interviewees became self-aware enough to change their habits, not all know-it-alls can correct their habits without outside intervention or a particularly costly mistake. Personality assessments can also help know-it-alls understand what they’re doing. No matter the method, increasing self-awareness and learning to ask questions is clearly a better strategy than pretending you know everything while showing the world you clearly don’t.