Coping with Bulldozing Expert Know-It-Alls

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Do you work for a bulldozing, Expert Know-It-All boss? . In Coping with Difficult Bosses, Robert Brahmson writes about how to cope with Expert Know-It-All difficult bosses.

Expert Know-It-Alls
Expert Know-It-Alls equate accuracy and thoroughness with competence, are unforgiving of minor errors, and tend to have little understanding or patience with the irrational aspects of human behavior such as feelings, wishes, and intuitions. Because they are knowledgeable, and because they thoroughly research and carefully plan everything they do, they often leave their less-linear-thinking subordinates feeling vaugely inadequate. In fact, the most frustrating aspect of reporting to an Expert Know-It-All is that 75 percent of the time, they will turn out to be correct.

Front Rank of Difficult Bosses
Although their “I’m always right” attitude is a constant irritation, that is not what boosts them to the front rank of Difficult Bosses. It is their knack for pulling incompetent behavior out of able subordinates.

Bulldozers
Bramson writes;

“These heavyweights of fact and reason are described by their subordinates as unstoppable, unfazable, and uncaring, sufficient reasong to call them by the name given to their mechanical brethren – Bulldozers. For example, they always have the right answer to eveyr question, not a right answer, the right answer. When anyone disagrees, they react as if it were a personal contradiction rather than a simple difference of opinion, cutting off the conversation in an obvious huff. Bulldozers are indeed, often accused of acting in a very “superior” manner, spurning others’ ideas as if they were the thoughts of befuddled children. And why should they not, for they are certain that their plans and ideas are better than any others.”

Childlike Rebellion
How do the subordinates react? Bramson writes:

“… a Bulldozer’s over-weening manner – pompous, patronizing, and pontifical – often calls up memories of impatient parents, who always knew better, and otherwise able employees find themselves drawn into a childlike subterranean rebellion. They show their “independence” by refusing to give fully of their abilities. In a sense, “flaunting” their incompetencies. Thus the strange circle is completed and the Know-It-All’s perception of the inadequacy of most of the rest of mankind is substantiated. It is not hard to see why they are reluctant to trust others with any but the most routine or mental tasks.”

Influencing Expert Know-It-Alls
Bramson writes:

“Of all of the Difficult Bosses I’ve studies, Expert Know-It-Alls are the hardest to influence. I suspect that the knowledge of their own competence, plus the frequent lapses into resistant sloppiness of their subordinates, leads them to the conviction that they are the standard to which all human beings should aspire. From that lofty perspective, one does not often pay head to the gibberings of inferiors. It is certainly not impossible to get a Bulldozer’s attention, but to do so may require more effort and persistence than you wish to invest.”

Coping with Expert Know-It-Alls
Bramson provides recommendations for coping with Expert Know-It-Alls:

  • Prepare as well as you can. Always do your homework. Expert Know-It-Alls are harsher critics of incomplete, slipshod, or carelessly assembled work than most other bosses.
  • Work for limited delegation goals. Since Expert Know-It-Alls tend to be cautious by nature, it’s wise to suggest that any freedom to act on your own be confined to a limited area. If possible, choose tasks with easily measurable results, not of any personal interest to your boss.
  • Don’t fight their expertise. Showing respect for their knowledge, while perhaps it may not help much, certainly can’t hurt.
  • Use questions to point out problems. Directly disputing your boss’s conclusions is likely to provoke argument rather than agreement. Use “Baby Blue Eyes” and “Extensional” questions. Baby Blue Eyes questions always end with “Can (could) you explain that to me?” For example, “I don’t exactly see how your marketing plan will put us ahead of our competitors, Mr. Smith, can you explain that to me,” or, “our problem has been that our line managers simply don’t read the administrative manual, Ms. Jones, could you explain that to me?” Having posed those naive questions, you bat your baby blue eyes and look innocent while your boss “explains” it all (regrettably often at great length.) An Extensional question simply asks another to extend their ideas or plans over time or space. For example, you might say, “I think I understand your plan for improving our performance review process Tom. Now could you describe just how that will work in each of our seven divisions since they are all a little different.”
  • Help your boss save face. There may be no alternative but directly pointing out faulty facts or conclusions. When you must beard the lion, you will boost the odds of being taken seriously and minimize angry repercussions, if you cushion your boss’s ego with a face-saving rationalization. Not that when their carefully wrought programds do go awry, Bulldozers tend to blame others for the disaster. For example, wonder out loud to your boss if they “weren’t probably thinking of the budget of the year before,” or “the tentative budget we talked about for awhile.”
  • There may be a bonus. Coping with a Bulldozer is often worth it. By doing your homework, by openly recognizing the knowledgeability and worth of an undoubted expert, and by raising well-thought-out and pertient questions that unobtrusively clarified weighty matters, you may end up with benefits ranging from less heavyhanded control over limited areas of your job to an almost complete turnaround. Suddenly, you will find that your boss is willing to expand the area in which you have almost complete authority, and your comments will be sought before the final plans have been set.

Key Take Aways
Here’s my key take aways:

  • Working for an Expert Know-It-All can be a painful, but rewarding experience.
  • You need to do a cost/benefit analysis whether changes bosses is worth it, depending on the toll your boss is taking on your self-efficacy.
  • The key is to get enough air-cover to do your job, while raising your game in terms of doing your homework, and avoiding confrontational, intellectual battles.

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