Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

How to Coach a Know-It-All

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a new employee on my team who is very knowledgeable but shares her knowledge in a very know-it-all fashion. I’m concerned this will lead to a disconnect between her and the rest of the team. I want her to develop good relationships with our team members, but I’ve noticed that her tendency is driving people away. Some folks on my team have also noticed and let me know. How do I “coach” her? I’ve never had to coach to personality traits before. It’s so much easier to address poor performance or disrespect, but this? What can I do?


Dear Coach,

Thanks for your question. Let me begin by applauding your word choice. As a people leader, one of my favorite responsibilities is that of a coach. In today’s evolving workplace, the role of servant leadership—with mentoring and coaching—is becoming more and more important. Additionally, those entering the workforce want to work in environments that foster skill development, and that requires coaching.

You may have to shift your mindset a bit to coach someone. Managing takes more of a directive approach by telling people what to do or solving their problems for them. Mentoring and coaching take an indirect approach. Mentors help by showing and offering guidance. Coaches ask questions so others can solve and overcome their own challenges.

So, what to do with your situation? How do you coach someone with a “know-it-all” personality?

Make Your Motives Clear

Focusing on what you really want is of most importance. But it’s a balance between what you want for EACH member and what you want for the TEAM. Phil Jackson, a world-champion professional basketball coach once said, “The strength of a team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”

What do you want for the team? My guess is you want a team where everyone can freely and safely share their ideas with each other. You want a team that not only listens but also values everyone’s ideas and input. You want a team that creates a strong pool of shared meaning to make better decisions and get improved results.

Within the team, what do you want for each team member? Again, my guess is you want each member of your team to feel safe to share, explore, challenge, question, and inspire one another. You want them to make their biggest and best contributions. These motives should drive how you lead your team. They should be your focus when you coach, especially in times when things go wrong or emotions get strong. Once you are clear with your motives, share them with your team and remind them in moments like this when you need to address something getting in the way.

Help Her See

People are often unaware of how their behavior impacts others. Good coaches don’t merely tell others what they are doing wrong. They help them see their behavior. In sports, a coach will use game film (a video recording of the game) to help the player identify where they fell short. In watching themselves perform, you don’t have to tell them what they did wrong; they will see it.

It’s probably a bit cumbersome for you to walk around with a video camera capturing every team interaction. And even if modern technology allowed for it, I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, try to capture what we might call “verbal game film.” Your question suggests that your employee shares her knowledge in a “know-it-all” fashion. What does that look like? If she were watching game film of the interaction, what would she see? What would she hear?

She may or may not know she is even doing it. Share the facts of these interactions to help her see how her behavior is affecting others. Avoid any stories or conclusions, like she’s a “know-it-all.” Doing so may trigger defensiveness and limit her receptiveness to your coaching. Stick to facts and try to help her see the impact her behavior is having on others. For example, “You may not be aware of it, but when you said in today’s marketing meeting ‘Everyone knows that direct mail is dead!’ others looked downward and went silent. Later, a few team members expressed concern that you shut down dialogue.”

Then invite her to share her thoughts after seeing the “game film.”

Let Her Lead

Whether this behavior is a new discovery or one she has been aware of for years, let her lead in exploring solutions. Too often as leaders we look for a quick fix. We insert ourselves too quickly. Remember, those you lead are closest to the problem and often know what to do better than you. Leaders are sometimes hesitant to step into a coaching role because they worry they don’t have all the answers. You don’t have to have all the answers. You just need to care.

Ask questions to engage her in discovering the best approach moving forward. Work jointly to find a solution that serves a mutual purpose for both her and the team.

Great leaders have a coaching mindset. Use this opportunity to identify how you can help your team learn and improve. I’d love to hear what other leaders have done to coach their team members. Tell us in the comments.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

11 thoughts on “How to Coach a Know-It-All”

  1. Gary Davis

    In my experience with one direct report, her team was fed up with her. I sat her down and told here her thinking is great but that it was too far beyond what her colleagues could deal with provided what their challenges were in their areas of responsibility. She needed to slow down and think about how she could aid them in catching up. We discussed where her colleagues were, and I sought her ideas on how we could upgrade their capabilities. She started developing ways to help them. They saw her as an ally instead of “Miss Know It All!” She has moved on to be an excellent leader and reminds me of our times when she was coached by me!

    1. Tanya

      I struggle with these situations sometimes because I want to promote acceptance of different personalities. I love your strategy! You didn’t try to change her personality but rather showed her how to make it an asset.

  2. Jeff

    Sometimes we encounter someone who is madly in love with their own intellect. They often don’t realize this, and either do not know or do not care how others perceive them. When confronted, they often become defensive to the point where it becomes near impossible to get them to open their eyes. Having been down that road myself, it is a long and sometimes difficult process to come around and understand the difference between reality and perception. It takes various carrots and sticks and while I recommend more carrots than sticks, sometimes you need a stick to get the point across. This could include writing it into a performance metric for review time, then offer classes or counseling to help them change their viewpoint, to become more aware of the perception and reality.

  3. Stefanie Costa

    I really liked the summary “Too often as leaders we look for a quick fix. We insert ourselves too quickly. … Leaders are sometimes hesitant to step into a coaching role because they worry they don’t have all the answers. You don’t have to have all the answers. You just need to care.”
    I think reminding yourself also that this is what you need to convey to the person you are coaching will also help. Often it is hard to accept that there might not be a “quick fix” for every situation but there will or would be a long-term effort needed to change certain behaviors in individuals and teams. Also, I found that sometimes, we don’t need to have a “fix” for every situation that is triggering us. Sometimes, things happen because we are human and we also have to learn what to let go and when to take meaningful action. I find that sometimes, more junior team leaders are striving for perfection and getting hung up on a human error resulting in constant micromanaging which can really alienate our team members or reports. But maybe this is getting away from the Know-It-All-Personality a little bit.

  4. Terra

    What I didn’t get in the article was what actually constitutes being a “know it all” and why that is a problem with the individual, and not also a problem with the rest of the team? Should the leader also be coaching the other team members on how to adapt themselves to work with the “know it all”. Maybe there is a miss match in the role the “know it all” is in and they would be better in a customer service role, than in an entirely internally facing role. Sorry, I don’t see this as being just a one team member issue to be coached. It is a team issue that needs to be coached.

    1. Julia Fell

      Great point. I’d also mention that it’s quite telling that it was a woman in several examples. So maybe the situation needed to be looked into deeper

    2. Laurie

      I totally agree Terra. This was my first thought as well. It’s equally important to build resilience in the entire team to adapt to all personality types. Also to learn to see one’s own triggers and approach those they find “annoying” with curiosity verses labeling and assumptions. What new dynamic might be created if everyone is being encouraged to look at their own inner dialogue and reactions rather than focusing on getting someone else to change? This ensures a much stronger team in the end I believe.

    3. Tanya

      Excellent point! I want my team to be accepting of different personalities in the workplace. People have different communication styles and different mastery of social norms. I won’t tolerate unprofessional or abusive behavior but if you just don’t like someone to the point you’re negatively impacting the team, I see that as immature and unacceptable. Assuming good intent in others and not assuming you know their motives goes a long way!

  5. Max Choi

    Everyone knows at least one, so-called “competent jerks” are “konw-it-alls” in the workplace. They don’t realize they are not explaining themselves or taking people along with them, less-self-aware. I like the approach on coaching like mirroring and finally their success ultimately depends on how they interact with others. Thanks!

  6. Tanya

    Thanks for a clear explanation of the differences between managing, mentoring & coaching. I found it very helpful!

  7. Peter

    I liked the idea of a verbal game film.

Leave a Reply