THE KNOW-IT-ALL EXPERTS
“You’re really lucky, Paul, to have a chance to assist Dante Alfetto with that new series he’s working on. He’s one of the best directors in the business,” Jack said, as he sat with his friend in a motion picture studio lunchroom.
“Yeah, I guess that’s right,” Paul said bitterly—“about him being the best director—but I don’t think I’m getting much out of it except the strong feeling that I’m an idiot. That guy is certain that he knows everything there is to know about making movies. He has a detailed plan for every scene worked out with diagrams, all done by numbers.” “Well, what’s the problem with that? It’s probably what makes him good.” “Sure,” Paul replied, “but it leaves me with absolutely nothing to do except fetch and carry. My title is Assistant Director; it ought to be Chief Nothing. If I suggest something, he’ll explain with that superior tone he’s got just why it won’t work. A month ago I gave him some script revisions. A week later I got them back covered with all kinds of snotty notes—‘editorial corrections’ he called them. Frankly, for the last two weeks I’ve just been sitting back and watching. What the hell, if he’s so damned wonderful, he can do it himself.”
“Now, have I made it quite clear why we should not put in a line of video-tapes?” Ames asked. “The volume of business we can expect and the cost of the tapes mean that we can’t make a worthwhile profit from either selling or renting. I’ve looked into the matter thoroughly—the prices tapes are going for, the number of video-tapedecks there are around, all the market trends—and there’s no question that I’m correct.”
“Well, maybe you’re right,” Ted offered, “but I bet I could make it work.” “All right, that’s enough,” Ames cut in coldly. “I can’t waste any more time on this. My father said you knew something about this business, but this video-tape idea certainly doesn’t show it.” As he listened sullenly to young Phillip Ames, who had recently inherited the stereo and record shop he managed, Ted Wilson consoled himself. Next month, when that new nationally franchised stereo shop opened and started pushing video-tapes, Mr. Know-It-All Ames would lose his shirt.
Know-It-Alls like Dante Alfetto and Phillip Ames seem to occur everywhere in the work world. They convey a belief in their own superiority that often leaves us imperfect earthlings feeling humiliated, immobilized, and helplessly angry. Know-It-Alls come in two main variations, Bulldozers and Balloons. Both communicate with others as if they know everything there is to know. The difference is that Bulldozers do, indeed, know a great deal, while Balloons don’t. In this chapter, we’ll consider how to cope with each type.
BULLDOZERS Let’s listen in on Sid, a personnel technician, complaining about his boss, Virginia Dorne:
There is just one way to do things around here: her way. You do it on her time schedule, you do it only in the manner she would do it, and you’d better know what that is. She doesn’t want suggestions or to hear what you have to say. Just don’t upset her with facts or with questions about whether the plan will work. It doesn’t matter how much experience you’ve had with that kind of payroll system or that you know some of her ideas won’t fly. All she seems to want you to do is shut up and pay attention. But if anything does go wrong, you can bet that it’s you who weren’t listening properly. Or else she goes slamming into her office and won’t speak to anyone until she’s worked out some elaborate explanation of what happened. Actually, 80 percent of her ideas are good ones, and I’ve learned a lot. But when she is wrong, it’s a lulu. Setting things straight afterward sometimes takes months. THE BEHAVIOR Virginia Dorne, like Dante Alfetto, typifies the essential qualities of those very tough customers, the bulldozing, Know-It-All Experts. Bulldozers, as that name implies, are highly productive people, thorough and accurate thinkers who make competent, careful plans and then carry them through, even when the obstacles are great. They exude a feeling of power and personal authority and a self-sustaining quality that bespeaks the fact that they need others very little, if at all. If these individuals are such gems of productivity, why are they included in a book on Difficult People? If you have ever found yourself teamed up with a Bulldozer as co-worker, supervisor, or subordinate, you know the answer. Here are the reasons I’ve come across most frequently. (1) There is a tone of absolute certainty, of sureness beyond mortal doubt, that, often without conscious intent, leaves others feeling like objects of condescension. (2) Most frustrating of all is that these insufferable paragons of logic usually turn out to be absolutely right. Thus, they often leave others feeling inept, confused, or stupid. (3) Bulldozers not only make their associates feel resentful, they also often elicit resistant, self-defeating behavior from them. For example, a group of engineers, as an act of protest, took to sending their reports to their bulldozing supervisor written carelessly in longhand on yellow-ruled note pads. “Why should we try to do good work,” they explained. “Every report that goes up, no matter how carefully prepared, comes back covered with notes that tell us how lousy it is. So we rewrite it and it comes back again, sometimes four times. We got tired of the secretaries yelling at us because they had to retype the reports so many times.” (4) Bulldozers leave little room for anyone else’s judgments, creativity, or resourcefulness. (5) Once they set out to implement a plan of action, they are devilishly hard to dissuade, even when their plan appears to others to be headed for failure. Therefore, while Bulldozers are indeed usually correct, when they’re wrong, it’s often a disaster for everyone concerned. (6) Finally, when things go wrong, they often see the fault as lying with those incompetents (like you and me) who were responsible for carrying it out. Not all experts are Know-It-Alls. Experts are people who know a great deal about a particular topic and can use that knowledge to solve practical problems. They are often people of impressive humility. I have known a few whose competence was almost overlooked because they refused credit for successful group projects that were mostly theirs in conception and realization. The difference between plain, nondifficult experts and Bulldozers lies in the way they communicate their knowledge. Since Bulldozers feel oracular, they see little need to listen to anyone else’s facts or knowledge. They, you see, already know the best way to proceed. Thus, they respond with irritation, outright anger, or withdrawal to differing opinions, seeing them as personal contradictions rather than simply other interpretations of fact. When questioned about their ideas or plans, Bulldozers dump a profusion of detailed facts and elementary logical arguments on their questioners, leaving them feeling completely deluged or impatient. Worse, the data are often only marginally pertinent to the questions that were raised. In order to cope effectively with this avalanche, and the Bulldozer’s superior attitude in general, we need to look more closely at what makes members of this species behave as they do. UNDERSTANDING BULLDOZERS Can you recall the way your parents sounded when they were telling you what you didn’t know? “Put that knife down! Do you want to cut yourself?” “If you’ll hold the bat off your shoulder a little more, Sonny, you’ll get a better swing—thata boy!” “You’d better wear your raincoat, it looks like rain.” Nothing differentiates children from their parents more than their unequal knowledge about the practical aspects of getting along in life. Parents don’t simply think they have superior knowledge, they do, in fact, know more about what is safe, about what is likely to pay off and what is not, about almost anything their four-year-old kid is likely to encounter. Even the child’s feelings are often more understandable to parents than to the child who has them. For some children that parental aura of certainty about what is, and what’s to come, represents security in a world that often feels unfathomable and inconsistent. For these children, the motivation to acquire facts and to develop orderly frameworks in which to fit those facts is particularly strong. The lesson for them is: Know for sure what the facts are; know for sure how they fit together—then, and only then, can you feel secure. It is in this way that people are inclined, sometimes driven, to become experts, and what a constructive response to a wish for security it is. The problem for all would-be experts is that much of the world is very hard to nail down. “Facts” are perceived differently by different people. Opinions about what those facts mean vary even more. In the face of this pervasive ambiguity, some of us abandon any efforts to systematize our perceptions and simply respond to whatever turns up next. Others haven’t abandoned these efforts, but have learned to live with or even enjoy ambiguity and the seeming tentativeness of all knowledge. Still others, those Difficult People we are trying to understand here, just can’t stand such uncertainty and strive even harder to impose their own order on everything they can. Their certainty that their theories, facts, and procedures are correct makes sane a world otherwise too unpredictable to contemplate. The basis of a Bulldozer’s stability is that tightly held knowledge which, given a changing world, constitutes the only bedrock available. It is therefore not surprising that an attack on the accuracy of that knowledge bites deep. It strikes not only at the substantive matter under discussion, but also at deepest levels of personal motivation. Thus, when the plan goes awry, the first line of defense is the ineptitude of others. When that line does not hold, and the cracks in that wall of logic must be faced, the emotional impact can be catastrophic. Complainers and Negativists, as we saw in preceding chapters, feel that the forces that affect their lives are largely out of their control. Bulldozers are the opposite. Their early life experiences led to their construction of a world in which they always got what they deserved. Unequivocal praise or blame from parents plus a sense of their own ability to affect things by careful planning and follow-through led easily to the belief that if good or bad things happen, they, not fate or luck, are the cause.* Given such strong needs to feel sure of their own notions of reality and to depend upon their own efforts, small wonder that Bulldozers spurn the ideas and conclusions of others. And each time the Bulldozer chugs firmly and methodically to a planned objective, the security that comes from being self-directing, self-sustaining, and unneedful of others is reinforced.
BULLDOZERS IN REVIEW —Bulldozers have in common with nondifficult experts a strong sense that the accumulation and ordering of facts and knowledge can provide stability in a relatively whimsical world. —Because Bulldozers believe that most of the power to affect their own lives resides in them, they tend to see the ideas and formulations of others as irrelevant to their own purposes.
—The “know-it-all” quality that seemed appropriate and equated with strength in their parents has become associated with both superiority and certainty of knowledge.
COPING WITH BULLDOZERS The central strategy in coping with Bulldozers is to get them to consider alternative views while carefully avoiding direct challenges to their expertise, lest they take your recommendations as personal attacks on them. Four basic steps are involved: make adequate preparations; listen and acknowledge; question and suggest, don’t challenge; and monitor your own tendencies toward bulldozing.
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