Become the Expert Without Becoming the Asshole

(WARNING: Salty language ahead. Do not continue reading if you plan to complain about the choice of words used in this post – they were chosen with great care to evoke a very specific meaning. Originally published by The Manager on LinkedIn.)

Nobody likes a know-it-all. Nobody.

I’m not talking about the know-it-alls who actually don’t know anything, but cannot help themselves from thinking they have all the answers. (I believe we can all agree that there is no place in a successful enterprise for these folks.) No, I’m writing today about those intelligent, long-time employees who actually do know everything. The true experts in your business.

I’m going to overgeneralize here, but these experts basically come in two flavors: the Wise Mentor-Experts and the OMG-Will-You-Please-Just-Shut-Your-Fucking-Mouth Assholes. The lesson I’m going for in this post (if it’s not too obvious already) is to help you become the expert without becoming the asshole… and this is not going to be an easy task for some of you.

But Steve, I do have all the answers…

I understand that it’s tough living with such greatness and having such wisdom. I understand that there are times when you look around your office and you just want to scream at the top of your lungs because you work with such complete imbeciles. I understand that for every issue presented, you have an instant solution that’s just dying to be heard.

Believe me; I understand: I am a recovering know-it-all.

If your workday seems a little ass-backwards – in that the more you know about a subject, the less your coworkers want your advice or assistance – then you are probably more of an asshole and less of an expert to others. The question you should be asking is “how can I use this great intellect and tremendous store of knowledge for good instead of evil?”

I want you to meet Fred (not his real name; though he is a real person). Fred is a high-IQ, high-energy “doer” with whom I worked closely for more than a couple of years. I liked Fred. I liked working with Fred. I even liked having a beer with Fred every now and then. I, however, was in the minority. To the best of my knowledge, everyone else at work despised Fred. It didn’t matter if they were coworkers, subordinates or superiors: the consensus was that Fred was an OMG-Will-You-Please-Just-Shut-Your-Fucking-Mouth Asshole.

I saw him as more of an asset than an asshole; but perhaps that’s because I am a former asshole. (Some of those who know me might argue the “former” part of that sentence.)

Fred could accomplish anything you needed. He was sharp as a tack, and could often think of solutions that were so off-the-wall that you questioned how in the world he ever made those connections. Fred’s problem wasn’t substance, it was style. The only thing that kept Fred from being the go-to expert was his rough, “fuck you” arrogance in how he delivered his solutions to the idiots around him.

What amazed me the most about Fred was how amazed he was that everyone else wasn’t as smart as him. It seems counterintuitive that the smarter you are the less aware you are of how everyone is different – all bringing different skills, backgrounds and brains to a project – but that has certainly been the case with nearly every truly high-IQ individual with whom I’ve worked. They all seem to start their careers with a blind spot to others’ abilities and the unique contributions that each team member can deliver. Only a handful become the Wise Mentor-Expert; most turn into old, crotchety, friendless farts.

Fred will someday be a friendless fart. Right now, he’s just friendless…

Friendless Fred, as I’ll call him for the rest of this post, is friendless because he is always right. It’s annoying, because he is annoying. He lacks the social skills to understand that not everyone gives a shit. Not everyone shares his passion for greatness. Not everyone cares if something is perfect or if it’s just good enough.

Most of the people you will ever work with – in fact, the overwhelming majority – will be folks who believe that good enough is good enough. The frustrating part for the experts is that these people are mostly right. Good enough, in most cases, is actually good enough. (Thus the moniker “good enough.”) There is a price for perfection that is too low when we’re talking about space travel and too high when we’re talking about collecting garbage on the side of the highway. Friendless Fred still cannot get over the fact that some things are good enough.

When we worked together, Friendless Fred would spend twelve hours at an office where everyone else spent seven and a half. He was a tireless worker, which was mostly good; but also an unrelenting perfectionist, which was mostly bad. I once watched him spend over four hours designing a spreadsheet that my boss spent five minutes reviewing and then deleting. The information was too much for my boss’ feeble mind to handle and Friendless Fred basically wasted four hours that could have been spent elsewhere.

What really made (and probably still makes) people dislike Friendless Fred is the smug, self-righteous way he presents his ideas. He envisions his stances as principled, while others view them as entrenched. I am convinced that Friendless Fred sees himself as this dark, tortured protagonist figure: the misunderstood trailblazer who somehow always manages to save the day and get the girl… even if he had to bust a few heads to reach these noble goals.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs…

Despite how these relationships are portrayed in movies, the self-righteous superstars are not often rewarded for making others look like fools in the real-world workplace. If you’re an asshole and you know it, but you’re resistant to change because you’re also a sanctimonious bastard who just knows deep down that what you are doing/suggesting/teaching is in the best interest of the company, then there may be no hope for you.

I don’t care how much being a self-righteous antihero that thumbs his nose at the establishment helped Clint Eastwood’s Inspector Callahan catch the bad guys in Dirty Harry, this combination is a career killer in real life. (And don’t forget: Inspector Callahan never got promoted. It didn’t matter that he was the best or bravest; people don’t like being told they’re fuckups, especially when they are fucking up.)

A rational, calm viewpoint (even when you’re wrong) is rewarded much more often than an irrational, angry opinion (even when you’re right).

Damn the torpedoes…

For most of the expert-assholes reading this, there is a certain bravado that will be hard to overcome. I think it’s perfectly natural when you possess a lot of the answers – but you don’t feel fully appreciated – to feel compelled to hammer your points so hard that you inflict brain damage on your coworkers and superiors. The less they care about what you have to say, the harder you hammer. The harder you hammer, the less they care about what you have to say. It becomes a vicious cycle that only ends in disaster for the expert-asshole.

The interesting dynamic here is that most expert-assholes really want to enact meaningful change where they see injustice or incompetence. Deep down inside, most expert-assholes have the company’s best interests at heart. They simply cannot find a way to convey this message to anyone else on the job without alienating everyone to the point that none of their ideas are ever taken seriously. Everyone just looks at them and thinks “Oh my God. Will you please just shut your fucking mouth?”

If you truly want to affect change, then it’s time to stop being the asshole…

The first step is to learn to shut up. Zip your overactive lip and sit on your hands for a few meetings; regardless of the topic or the direction of the discussion.

Let’s say you work at a Starbucks. This morning the manager is having a quick motivational meeting, and she suggests that everyone pour hot coffee on any patron wearing a suit and tie as your way of showing support for the 99 Percenters. Everyone thinks this is a great idea (of course they do, they work at Starbucks), though you know it’s complete lunacy and it will probably land the participants in jail. You so want to explain this to everyone, but doing so would make you the asshole.

Shut up. Let them make their mistakes; and maybe you’ll be the manager after yours gets fired tomorrow.

Absurd example, I know; but for the expert-assholes reading this, every management decision with which they disagree seems as ill-advised as pouring hot coffee on one’s patrons. Believe me when I write this: even the best and brightest managers are going to make decisions with which you disagree. The outcome for the majority of these decisions is not famine or war, so learn to shut up and let people say stupid shit or make a few dumb decisions every now and then.

The next step to becoming more of an expert and less of an asshole is to understand that for virtually any issue there is more than one solution. While yours might be the best, it doesn’t mean that going in a different direction will spell disaster. I like to say it this way: There are about 100 ways to do any task at work. 90 of them are good and 10 of them are bad; so long as you pick one of the 90, that’s okay with me.

If your boss has chosen one of the 90 good ways to do something, then support the decision and help the company succeed – even if you would have chosen a different path.

Finally, when you must openly disagree with someone, try picturing the idiot you’re addressing as a small child or elderly woman. It’s a whole lot harder to be an asshole to kids and grandmas than it is to douchebag bosses and coworkers. Mix in a little respect and kindness – you’ll be amazed at how quickly people will begin to see your side and start treating you like the Wise Mentor-Expert that you and Friendless Fred so desire to be known as.