Thursday, November 17, 2011

Do You Work With A Know-It-All?

Do you work with someone who always tries to make you feel like you were born in a barn? A co-worker who never misses an opportunity to look down his or her nose at you? If you haven't encountered the condescending co-worker, you will eventually. It's almost unavoidable, and it's how you handle these insufferable know-it-alls that makes all the difference.

You'll know immediately when you're in the presence of a condescending co-worker. There's a tone in the voice and a certain look in the eyes, as if they're wondering how you manage to button your shirt in the morning without a manual. They'll want to explain the basics of your job to you when you've been doing it (quite well, thank you) for a few years now and you have the student loan debt to prove it. Maybe this person refers to you by pet names such as "sweetie" or "cutie" or the dreaded "hon" instead of your real name while shunting all of the less mentally-intensive work on to your plate. Do you think you can file these documents in this thing called a "filing cabinet"? The alphabet can be quite complicated, so just let me know if you have any questions. Thanks, sweetie.

Ugh. You weren't standing behind the proverbial door when professional skills were handed out, but this co-worker-on-a-high-horse makes you feel that way, all the time. The condescending co-worker's dismissive attitude can rub off on your other co-workers over time, too. Oh, don't give that project to Kim, she'll only mess it up. Wow, how does she make it through life, exactly? The glaring (and growing) lack of confidence in your abilities on the job is enough to make you scream -- or worse, quit -- because you're not sure how to get out of this confusing, no-really-I'm-actually-very-smart-and-talented mess you're in.

I know one guy who dealt with a condescending co-worker who he was in the process of training. That's right: training. Here he was, teaching this trainee -- a peer, no less -- how to do a set of tasks the person didn't know how to do, and all the while he was being questioned about his qualifications as an employee and a trainer. Are you *sure* you're doing this the right way? Maybe the boss should show me instead to make sure I learn it correctly? Talk about unsettling and annoying.

What's perhaps most grating about know-it-all co-workers is that they usually know about as much as you do (or less) but try to pass themselves off as the office guru. A Sensei of the cube farm set. So what should you do when you have to deal with a condescending co-worker? Here are a few basic tips:

1. Assess whether it's just you. Is your condescending co-worker like this with everyone in the office (customers included) or does he or she save up a bucket list of useless pointers and menial projects just for you? If everyone gets the same treatment, then this person is a garden-variety Cornholio. If it's just you, then there's a bigger problem at play. Which brings us to Tip #2.

2. Fight condescension with intelligence. So a peer at work wants to constantly question your abilities, huh? Don't take it laying down; stand up for yourself. Tweak this co-worker a little when he or she tries to explain the very basics of your job yet again ("Oh, a filing cabinet? That thing invented in 1898 by Edwin G. Seibels while he was employed at his father's insurance firm? Oh, yeah, I've used those before"). Don't be afraid to take your smarts to town when this co-worker is trying to pigeonhole you as the village idiot. Don't get mad, get witty. Stay calm, flash your smarts and reveal a sense of confidence in yourself and your abilities. No one else in the office is going to do this for you, unfortunately. Wikipedia and Google are your friends. Use them as necessary.

3. Be more proactive. Some employees will clam up and retreat into a shell in the face of this problem and start to accept their perceived inabilities as the status quo for as long as they're at the company. This strategy only makes things worse, of course. If you think a work-delegating peer doesn't trust you with certain projects, volunteer to take one on the next time it's up for grabs. This way, you broach the problem in a proactive way because (1) you're throwing your hat into the ring (what boss doesn't like to see this?); and (2) you're effectively forcing this co-worker to tell you no, and to explain why not. This opens the door for you to tout your skill set and to say how you'd like to take on new assignments. At the very least, the condescending co-worker will see that you're willing to fight for what you believe in (e.g., yourself and your abilities). Your other co-workers will see that you can take a stand too, which could have the much-needed effect of shifting the office paradigm a little bit. Hmm, maybe Kim isn't such a talentless pushover after all. Good communication is key. And if you get the assignment, make it your best work ever.

4. Figure out what's worth ignoring. The know-it-all co-worker could be saying condescending things all day long, every day and quite frankly, he or she isn't going to change overnight, if ever. You'll have to decide which comments to ignore and which comments to confront. If this co-worker chides your lunch decisions ("Oh, you don't eat organic?") that's one thing. Go to your happy place or to the soda fountain to cool off and refill your drink. Sometimes it's just not worth it, you know? If this co-worker starts offering basic pointers about your job, however, that's another thing. Simply say, "Oh, I know that already, but thanks" and, depending on the circumstances and how much you trust this employee, you might back it up with a few new insights you've learned about a task or client that your condescending co-worker doesn't know. Sure, you're "one-upping" this co-worker but sometimes you have to go there with these people to keep your sanity, don't you? Pick your battles and save your rapid fire for the most important ones.

5. Never ask for their opinion. You'll only feed the beast and open the door to even more condescending advice. This goes for work-related matters as well as personal matters. Ask this employee's opinion, and he or she will walk away thinking you really want/need/enjoy their random and unwelcome bits of knowledge and advice. Oh, the horror. Ask someone else. Anyone else.

There are other tips I could go into, but these are a few basics for, ahem, "realigning" your relationship with condescending co-workers. It can be done, but it's an uphill battle and you'll have to stand your ground. Good luck, you'll need it.

For more know-it-all fun, read my related posts entitled Six Ways To Know If You're A Know-It-All At Work and Dealing With Co-workers Who Make False Assumptions.


  1. this post made my night! I have been working for my company for over two years and took a leave last month for a surgery. When I got back we had a temp previously an intern for 3 weeks (this is her first job ever JUST graduated college) this describes her soo well. I needed advice BAD and something to make me feel like I wasn't crazy. Awesome writing style also :)

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Danielle. I'm so happy this blog post brought a smile to your face. (We all need one when we work with a know-it-all, don't we?)

  3. hi,
    i just googled "how to deal with condescending, know it all co-workers" and this popped up.
    it's good read. i appreciate it and you're right. i will need the luck.
    i work in the medical field (veterinary) and as any medical professional knows... there is literally an infinite number of opinions on an infinite number of topics...
    of course that environment must just be asking for nasty behavior? but does it have to?
    here's my ditty:
    a co-worker has been there longer than me and is pretty good with practical stuff; she's well respected for a reason. she's not intellectually lazy. she was given a unique gift and i have a lot of respect for it. i have no idea how to express that without her just passing me off like i don't exist... like most days.
    i, on the other hand am new to the facility and am still in the process of learning new ideologies, doctors and an entire staff... while my brain squeezes out bits of other knowledge to make room for it all... that's not a good thing.
    she has shown no patience for learning curves; i apparently have them (like most humans)... this is also a matter of very high expectations.
    i do not begrudge that at all and respect the latter highly, but the 'tude can be lost, if you ask me.
    i WILL learn it whether or not she's being rude about what she knows and what i do not (but actually i do know it, it's just in that other file cabinet in my brain across the room).
    i often feel like she is giving me pop quizzes, but has researched the answer ahead of time just to "get" me.
    other times she shakes my confidence as if to intimidate me, "you think you can audit and post an invoice? (shrugs and rolls eyes) sink or swim". that was adorable... then,
    "heh, your 1st anesthesia procedure is with the practice owner." (i didn't end up doing the procedure, but do you call that supportive or helpful?? i do not.)
    i just had my 6 month review... i felt like i was called a fraud and that was absolutely horrible to hear: that i am less than what my experience on my resume states.
    right in the love-muscle.
    did i deserve that? i wonder...
    did i?

    1. ...

      sure, i should be made aware of shortcomings so to better myself, but that really hurt.
      it weakened my confidence and i screwed up that week; more than i would have wanted to, but less than tragic...
      i pride myself on doing the best work i can, and ensuring my co-workers understand what i'm doing... and i clean a lot. i find cleanliness in the hospital very important, knowing what i know about microbes and fungus and how they can complicate already ill patients... i have a lot of thoughtfulness in everything i do. but when i am distracted, my performance unfortunately wavers. i see less than i need to sometimes and it gets worse when i'm harassed by a colleague in such a manner.
      it's very unsettling, but at the same time, in a weird way, keeps me more focused to have that little bit of tension... if *i* don't question me, maybe someone else should so i can really do the best job; it is medicine after all.
      the folks i work with are kind of over the top smart and it is delightful to have access to such grounded, positive people.
      maybe a bully is a good thing in some ways, but i have been more productive in more positive environments. more supportive ones. more helpful ones.
      tonight she said to a coworker of mine, "you're working tomorrow with me, let's make a ... blah blah... whatever" dinner to share or something...
      they talk about each other's facebook pages, too.
      i often wonder... is it on my onus as the new gal to be like "wanna be mah face book frieeend?" is it? or should they be a little more welcoming and say, "hey, i know you're new here, wanna chill sometime?" i mean, really, is it really so hard to be friendly to a new person?
      [WHO by the way has just travelled across the country this summer after selling all her stuff with her 3 animals and is about move again... (shit, it's even more complicated than that)...]
      i am shy and a little socially awkward, i am made to feel socially awkward often. i'll say something and no one responds. it's really adorable. then they talk amongst themselves... so i go clean.
      i'm 35 and i look 25. i'm short and blonde and apparently that means something to some people.

      i see my new place tomorrow... we'll see if i like it or not... i think i will... but i don't know. i'm scared to make this move, but i think i'm doing it anyway... i feel like i'm body surfing... hope i don't land on rocks again... gotta paddle like hell. :)

    2. I don't know you, but you sound like an awesome person to work with. Don't let the bastards get you down :-)

  4. The best remedy for this situation is to maintain a stoic attitude. Don't get emotionally invested in arguments and debates. Instead, take an apathetic perspective. The best way to deal with a bully or a know-it-all co-worker is to become conscious of your own behavior. But if he/she starts to personally attack you just to try and prove his/her point, make an official report to HR or consult a lawyer when things get more serious.

    Alana Gorecki

  5. In a way I find my colleague slightly amusing. She lives in a world where she is so awesome. Or at least tries to create the image of that. All day it's me me me, and then I did this and then that person said that about my hair. It's like a compulsion. It's exhausting. She is rude and condescending, hot and cold. If she grows bored with you or the conversation she'll put up her hand like a stop sign and do a lemon face. Other times she'll just ignore me and others or turn around and start working. Then the other day she stepped over the line. We work as a team and she was introducing me to the person who will be filling in for her when she's away. I have a huge responsibility for making our product what it is. She introduced me as the person who books parking, and then likened me to a skeleton saying she was the flesh. And so on. I've written this down and will be taking notes on her behavior from now on.

  6. Alana it's impossible to maintain a stoic attitude when you're dealing with these types of people - unless you're a zombie then congrats on being part of the undead employed - which describes 90% of all working Americans.

    But I digress, the best advice is given in point 2. Stand up for yourself. Don't let some know it all jackass drive you to the point of insanity. If you're good at your job the company will keep you. Finding good people is borderline IMPOSSIBLE these days. The kids coming out of college think they should be handed a 6 figure salary and a BMW right out of school. I I personally love the jack-in-the-box commercial with the new "social media intern" making copies on the tanning bed - We have one of those here. I swear to god anyone within audible distance of her voice instantly loses 50 IQ points. As for the 40+ crowd, they are just as useless hanging on for dear life and remembering the good old days. Good old days as in, remember when we didn't have to do f'ing anything and we got full benefits, retirement, 5 weeks of vacation.

    So again, if you're a good employee just stand up for yourself and trust me, management or HR will fix it. The longer you wait the more they will question, "Why is this just bothering you now?"

    Good luck to anyone reading this. If you came across this you must be having rough times at work. Be strong and get a little strength from knowing you're not alone.

    1. One day you will be the 40plus something jackass.

    2. I was with you up to the 40+ crowd comment. That's quite a generalization. According to you, the only folks worth anything at work are what, 26-ish to 39? To bad for everyone, I guess, that retirement age is mid-60s.

    3. Hey!! Resented the over 40 remark....not fair we're working as hard or harder than anyone else.

  7. I work with a guy in Information Technology. I don’t work for him and he doesn’t work for me – we are peers that work together on projects. He is exceptionally smart and a scary fast trouble shooter. He practically built all the infrastructure himself so of course his knowledge is extensive. I never go to him with a problem or question that I haven’t researched to the best of my ability. While I am no slouch I know that he is much more capable in his area of expertise. Problem is he is exceedingly condescending. He has called my work pointless and said that I have only a superficial knowledge. I’ve been at this organization for nine years. My knowledge is better that superficial.

    This guy works all the time. He has several jobs. He takes vacation from this job to work other jobs. No normal human being can compete with him. I do stand up to him but once I leave his presence or hang up the phone with him I’m seething with anger and frustration.

    I’ve brought this up to my manager over and over again, year after year. Many others experience the same thing that I have. More timid people are just too afraid to approach him. Yes, he has called people stupid to their faces. This organization is way too dependent upon him to get rid of him.

    My manger has asked me what I want him to do about this guy. I’m stumped. He’s been talked to over and over again. I used to joke with him and tell him to ‘stop poking me with a stick’ but I’m sick of doing that too.

    One final comment about this guy. He recently told me that he resents ALL the women on our team – he thinks we get special treatment. This is not true. I work for one of the fairest managers I’ve ever had.

  8. How do you deal with condescending co-worker who's very impatient? I'm new to the office and this platform and she's supposed to be training me as her replacement. However she's so condescending and impatient day to day it's hard for me to learn over the sound of my own blood boiling over her snide comments and subtle rude remarks. What do I do?
    I feel like it's too soon to bring it up to my supervisor and conversely I want to nip it in the bud as soon as possible so that a pattern doesn't form. I don't want her getting comfortable treating me like this.

  9. my co-worker does not seem to do the rude snide comments until there are others around. Now what. She provides candy and other things for them as well. UGH!! help She is also the one I am suppose to turn to as I learn this new job.

    1. I hear Ya! We've got a "know-it-all" here as well. She does the same thing too, with the treats and all, to get people on her side. Every time someone starts to speak, she jumps in and starts finishing their sentences for them, as if she knows exactly what they are going to say. It's incredibly rude! Plus, the words that she tries to interject with are wrong, so the person speaking has to say, "No, that's not what I was going to say..." She uses the word "Actually" approximately 10 or more times per day. This is very condescending, as it implies that the person speaking is wrong, and she is correcting them on every subject that comes up. If she doesn't know the answer to a question, she will make up the most ridiculous answer, just so that she has something to rebut with to make her feel smarter than everyone else. Some of the answers she gives are so unbelievable and absurd that she just makes herself look like a fool. What's more is her narcissism. She never stops bragging! This one-upmanship causes a lot of rolling eyes and some tension in the office.

  10. So glad I found this post. I'm a 56 year old woman and I work in an aircraft hangar as a cleaner. There are 200 blokes and 5 women on the shop floor, but it's the patronising men I can't deal with. I've been there a year now, twice as long as some of the ones that are giving me grief, and I've actually gone sick today because I've had enough and will probably lose my job over it as I am only a contractor. Despite the fact that I've done 3 training courses that they haven't done yet, and I've worked all my life, brought up 2 boys on a boat single-handedly, and am recognised by my manager as being good at my job, I get comments like "See this bit here - it's called a circuit board don't get it wet" AAAGH as if I don't know! And "you should be doing our laundry not cleaning aircraft," AAAGH!!! And because we get laid off often when there's not enough work it has turned into Backstab City so these sort of comments are really just bullying ways of trying to get rid of me to safeguard their own jobs. I reckon this is a personality trait, these people are bullies, and yes I agree with the last comment they are NARCISSISTS, always bragging and blatantly stealing your work. One of them gets off on taking my equipment out of my hands and carrying on the job I was doing! And I TRAINED HIM!! I'd like to think these insufferable irritating arseholes will get their comeuppance but unfortunately they always win, and I feel like it's the survival of the fittest. I used to match their comments with banter and witty back-chat, but I've lost my sense of humour now because they bite back with something even more patronising and I get even more wound up. I think these are the type of people that cut you up in the car, drive like pratts and push in when there's a queue. Anyway, thanks for giving me the chance to get this off my chest even if no-one reads it!

    1. I read it Sue, and I'm sorry you have to deal with these awful people. I wish you happier times in good company :-)

  11. I finally said screw it and reported the offender to HR. Their problem now, not mine.

  12. I work in the heritage sector with the National Trust and one disadvantage of working with the public in a visitors' attraction is the amount of rude and patronising visitors you will meet. Sadly customer care comes first so you can't really come out with sarcastic, witty retorts which is hard as my natural mode is sarcasm.

  13. Excellent article and just what I needed. I work with a guy who is in his late 50s (I am a female in my late 20s). I can't say anything to him without him arguing and this could be over a grocery store! (and it has been over a grocery store). For some reason, this jerk feels the need to assert himself over me for some reason. I am convinced he is threatened. I pretty much have to tell him what to do because he is lazy and then he questions me. He never makes eye contact with me either. He is argumentative with everyone, but seems to be the most rude to me. I don't talk to him unless I have to and if I am having a conversation with a co-worker and he buts in, I leave the conversation. But obviously, this guy doesn't get it...

  14. Really interesting blog. I started a new job in the summer this year. The new team are fine apart from one individual. She is less than half my age and makes nippy remarks which come across as disrespectful. She is a complete know it all, overconfident to the point she is cocksure about everything she says. I get such a bad vibe from her as soon as she walks into the office. I will take on board the advice here :-)

  15. Sometimes, when certain people feel someone is condescending they should first find out if others feel that way as well. Its been my experience that individuals that immediately jump to the condescending label toward someone it's usually because they're compensating for a failure or lack of knowledge/experience themselves...

  16. I would say that the engineering profession is the worst when it comes to this kind of thing. I've had to deal with this constantly and it is starting to really get under my skin. It's like the old adage goes...a tree growing in the shadow of another tree will soon wither and die. Unfortunately, in engineering there is no finessing your way around raw and untamed technical talent. It is a cold, unyielding and mechanical monolith that literally will end up choking out any sort of passion or drive, ESPECIALLY in the presence of superior talent that makes itself known and acknowledged the very moment it presents itself each morning.