Knowledge Bullies

How much are they costing you and what to do about it.


By Peter Stonefield, PhD


Frank was a brilliant software engineer and architect as well as an arrogant, dictatorial and dismissive Knowledge Bully. He was both revered and resented.  Publicly he was often recognized for his genius, which saved the company weeks of development time. But privately he was resented for behavior that cost the company millions in less visible ways.


I first heard of Frank while interviewing software engineers in preparation for a company conference on leveraging knowledge. Three of the first five people I interviewed identified Frank as the single biggest obstacle to their success at the company. They all told me stories of submitting code to Frank for review and getting the following response. “This is garbage, go back to MIT and learn how to code.”  Their technical lead, told them “suck it up, I still get similar responses.”  Their Director, shrugged and told me they have been living with this for years. But even more troubling, an executive in another part of the company spent over two million dollars so he would not be held “hostage” again by Frank.


To assess how big a problem Knowledge Bullies are, I polled two hundred engineers from twenty Silicon Valley companies.  The results indicated that the problem is wide spread and costly.  One hundred and seventy one respondents indicated they knew of at least one “Expert” in their organization that was very difficult to work with and had a significant negative effect on productivity, moral and or meeting schedule.  They also ranked the most challenging counter-productive tendencies.

  •   Arrogant, condescending attitude.
  •   Intimidating and over-controlling.
  •   Judgmental, makes negative inferences about seeker’s level of knowledge. Sees ignorance as stupidity. 
  •   Un-available. Remote, uninterested in others.
  •   Self-serving ego. Everything builds them up, highlights their glory
  •   Impatient. Dismissive.
  •   Rude/inconsiderate and indifferent.
  •   Unforgiving of mistakes.
  •   Doesn’t share reasoning process.
  •   Doesn’t break their grand schemes down for understanding.


 How much does it cost?

Consider the following questions.  How many individual initiatives never go beyond the idea stage out of fear that if they went public they would be made to look stupid.  How much time has been lost because people had to wait for knowledge, lick their wounds, vent their resentments and search other sources for knowledge?  How many weeks longer is it taking new hires to become fully productive?  What about turnover?  What has been the impact on the development schedule? 


Why organizations are reluctant to address the issue?

Most organizations tolerate the problem because the experts are very difficult and costly to replace. They do not want their experts to walk away with the intellectual know how that is critical to organizational success. In Frank’s case, his Director’s career and bonuses were tied to his brilliance.


What you can do about it.

Confronting them directly and telling them to change seldom works. Very smart people, elevated as geniuses and heroes can be very resistant to change from the outside in. When things go wrong or people complain, they tend to project the cause onto others. They use their enormous intellectual resources defensively. Here are some complementary strategies for turning Knowledge Bullies into mentors, thought leaders and collaborative leaders.



Coaching difficult experts takes skill and patience.  Just confronting and locking horns with their difficult aspects increases resistance to change and can make matters worse. The role of the coach is to assist them in discovering new behaviors that complement or neutralize their counterproductive tendencies. The focus must be on extending their influence and contribution rather than emphasizing unlearning counter-productive tendencies.  For example, just a little effort to listen and understand can reduce the harshness of a dictator.  A touch of humility can neutralize a lot of arrogance.


From Superman to Super Gardner

SupermanFor example, Paul J., a Senior Staff engineer for a major networks company, was repeatedly recognized for his extraordinary technical skills and his heroic all niters to assure deadlines.  He kept a sleeping bag in his office.  However, he was equally noted as intimidating, arrogant, judgmental and over controlling.  When coaching experts like Paul, the last thing you want to do is run the risk of diminishing that commitment and effort by attacking their counter-productive behaviors directly. They will take it personal.  My strategy was to facilitate his natural creative self-organizing process to discover what was already trying to happen in his subconscious drive to actualize his potential.  I guided him through creative thinking process that evoked metaphorical images, from his subconscious, of both his current interpersonal style under stress and his “next step.”  His image under stress was Superman with an oversized brain and sharks teeth.  He was both amazed and tickled by it.  As the heroic image of super brained, super toothed and super driven Superman he could swoop down on any challenge and defeat it. However, as Superman, he also tended to see different points of view, mistakes and nine to fivers as the enemy. “Superman just can’t stand people who don’t get it right and won’t put in the effort.”

His image for his “next step” was a Gardener. He described the Gardener as someone who tills the soil, plants seeds, fertilizes, waters and harvests the crop. Seeing his work as cultivating a garden intrigued him. After we translated the metaphor into behavior with specific people, he thought; “interesting this could work with some people.”  He could see how the seeding of ideas, followed up by positive reinforcement could produce a harvestable work product.  His concern, “it will take time patience and trust of which I am in short supply.”  I agreed, “this will always be the case whenever you are over-identified with your passionate and impatient Superman.”  The key is to temporarily step back from or detach from the passion of Superman and become the patient Gardener. Over the next several weeks he learned how to do just that.  Directing the oscillation between the two not only empowered him, but diminished the unproductive edge of Superman changing the way people perceived him.  They began to see him and he began to see himself as still driven and demanding but more approachable, more open to other views and acting more as a thought leader. 


Build “Communities of Practice”

Another complementary strategy is to create a new context and new role that requires Knowledge Bullies to change in order to succeed.  Organize like practitioners, including the difficult expert, into an informal “community” for the expressed purpose of leveraging and evolving core knowledge. Develop guidelines for people seeking knowledge from experts. Define the difficult expert’s role in the community as mentor, thought leader and collaborative leader. Roles like these maintain their status but require a shift in behavior.


Incent Knowledge Sharing.
Find ways to measure and incent knowledge sharing.  Establish knowledge sharing as a competency and include it in the annual performance review. 


With new knowledge exploding, complexity increasing and time to market shrinking you need to leverage your intellectual capital.  You need individual contributors acting as empowered intelligent agents not frustrated and demoralized knowledge seekers wasting too much of their time trying to reinvent the wheel. You need your best knowledge easily accessed and distributed. Establishing “communities of practice”, redefining roles and coaching can turn difficult experts into willing mentors, thought leaders and collaborative leaders.


PeterStonefieldHSsmallPeter Stonefield, BSEE, MA, PhD. is President of Stonefield Learning Group, consultant, psychologist, speaker and the author of numerous articles. Doctor Stonefield was an electronic engineer, marketing director and sales executive for the Bunker-Ramo Corporation.


He has successfully completed over 150 consulting engagements, created more than 20 different training and development programs and coached over 300 executives for organizations like Apple Computer, Baxter Laboratories, Dow Chemical, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Intel, US Government, PPG, SBC and Sun Microsystems. He has facilitated the development of 10 knowledge leveraging “Communities of Practice” in engineering and marketing organizations.  He was the principal consultant to the winner of the President's Quality Award for Managing Change.


He recently drafted a computing vision for Sun Microsystems. His is currently launching Agile Communications™- a breakthrough interpersonal communications system and leadership development program promising -- “Effectiveness-Anytime, Any Place, and any Situation”™. His mission is to accelerate evolution.


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©2010 Peter Stonefield