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Confident or Arrogant? How to Tell the Difference and Why It Matters

Bruna Martinuzzi 

March 11, 2019

A few years ago, I interviewed a young woman for a position in our company. During the interview, I started to explain the opportunities for advancement. Before I had finished, she interrupted me to say, “The only job I want is yours!”

The statement and something in her body language struck me as somewhat arrogant.

Others might see such behavior as super confident – a more desirable trait. But there’s a fine line between arrogance and confidence, and it can be hard to distinguish between them – especially as, in many western cultures, we encourage and reward self-promotion as the key to success.

Plus, many of us are raised to believe that we are unique and special, and that we can have or be whatever we want. This is a positive message, but one that carries risks.

Working to boost self-esteem is a good thing, but taking it to excess can encourage arrogance and narcissism instead.

How Can You Tell If Someone Is Confident or Arrogant?

Let’s start by defining both terms. Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance that comes from an appreciation of our abilities or qualities. Arrogance is characterized by having an exaggerated sense of our importance or abilities.

Luckily, there are a few clues that can help us to spot arrogance.

First, arrogant individuals often believe that they have nothing to learn from others, so they act like know-it-alls. They fight tooth and nail to be right and to show that others are wrong. As a result, they don’t listen to other people’s views.

Confident people, on the other hand, have no problem listening. They’re aware that they don’t know everything and are happy to learn from others.

Arrogant people also like to talk about themselves. A lot. They brag about their achievements, skills and abilities, and often ignore those around them. In meetings, for example, arrogant people generally seek the spotlight. Consciously or unconsciously, they make others feel less important. They might use condescending language, talk over people, or display body language that shows a lack of interest in others.

Conversely, confident people may shine a light on their colleagues’ achievements in meetings or in group work. They ask for input, encourage teamwork, and generously praise their co-workers.

Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that arrogance often masks insecurity. That’s why arrogant people are boastful about their achievements and abilities while tending to demean others.

Confidence, on the other hand, stems from true self-worth: a belief and pride in your achievements and abilities. Confident people have self-assurance that contributes to inner calm. They show composure and don’t brag or act superior to others.

Ultimately, arrogance repels us. Nobody likes to spend time around arrogant people. They are a vexation to the spirit.

Confident people are the opposite: they inspire others. The more we spend time with them, the more likely we are to develop confidence ourselves. Confidence attracts us and is contagious.

How to Manage Arrogant Behavior or People in the Workplace

You can’t fully guard against arrogance, because you can’t control the way that people behave. But here are eight handy tips to help you reduce and manage arrogance in your team:

1. Start by Hiring Right

If you want to establish a culture that promotes teamwork and mutual respect, it’s essential to ensure that you don’t unwittingly hire an arrogant person.

Here are a couple of things to look out for:

  • Resumes that are “too good to be true.” Arrogant applicants may inflate their skills and contributions at their previous jobs. They may also try to position themselves as the only person suitable for the job. One application letter I received started with, “By temperament and experience, you will find no one better suited than me for this position.” The tone raised a red flag, despite the eloquent phrasing. Sure enough, during the interview, the applicant spent the whole time trying to convince me why he was better than anyone else I might interview.
  • Demanding behavior. An arrogant applicant may seem to have a strong sense of entitlement. For example, they let you know what they don’t want to do. One applicant I interviewed said that he “never worked overtime.” Another even asked to see where she would sit, to make sure that the desk space suited her.

Others may inquire about senior responsibilities that are not in line with their level of experience. They might ask about promotions before even being offered a job, for example.

A wise person once said that when people first show you who they are, believe them. We may see behaviors that our gut feeling tells us are signs of arrogance. We need to heed these signals.

2. Make Attitude a Part of Job Performance

To encourage positive changes, include “attitude” when you evaluate job performance. Make it part of your performance review process.

A recent study shows that sometimes, people are arrogant because they wrongly believe that their expertise will justify their behavior. Let people know that it’s not enough to be brilliant, or to be an expert in their area. Having the right attitude and getting along with others is equally important.

3. Confront the Arrogant Employee

Sometimes, you need to tackle arrogant behavior head-on. Set up a meeting with the employee and be specific about incidents where the person has shown arrogance.

Outline specific examples, alongside the consequences of their behavior. For example, explain how it impacts team morale and productivity.

I recall a situation where a supervisor displayed arrogant behavior toward his two direct reports. He’d issue orders, offhandedly dismiss their ideas, and frequently pull rank. One employee quit because of him – she shared that he treated her like a hired hand, and she never felt like an equal partner.

The second employee started taking more sick leave. The supervisor’s arrogant behavior was hurting the team, and it reflected badly on him.

Also, show the arrogant employee how changing their behavior not only helps the company, but can also be beneficial to their career. Arrogance may close doors to better opportunities, and no one wants that.

4. Set Expectations

Ingrained arrogance may not be easy to change. But it’s easier to change behaviors than it is to change attitudes, so outline specific behaviors that can replace the arrogant ones.

For example, imagine an employee who is habitually late for team meetings, sauntering in after the session is well underway, and serving himself coffee while others are talking. This behavior may signal to others that he does not respect the meeting leader. The first thing he could do is to behave as if he does respect her, and turn up on time.

5. Monitor the Employee’s Progress

Give people enough time to practice their new behaviors. However, remind them that they are still accountable for their conduct. Schedule a follow-up meeting – in three months, say – to discuss progress.

In extreme cases – if there have been many complaints about the employee’s arrogance and conduct, for example – it may also be necessary to make the person aware of the consequences of failing to improve.

6. Raise the Employee’s Self-Awareness

In some cases, it’s possible that, in their zeal to succeed, some employees are not aware of how they come across. Help them to understand the difference between self-confidence and arrogance.

A 360 assessment can help to increase the arrogant employee’s self-knowledge. Receiving objective feedback from direct reports and peers can help an employee who may need to tone down their behavior to do so with discretion.

However, be aware that truly arrogant team members may not respond well to constructive criticism. You may need to coach them through this process and help them to use the information productively.

7. Reallocate Tasks

You may have a brilliant and competent employee who doesn’t work well in groups. Consider, if possible, allocating work where they can excel as an individual contributor. This could include behind-the-scenes tasks such as analytical work.

8. Consider Team-Based Performance Bonuses

The norm in most companies is to tie bonuses to individual performance. If, instead, you align bonuses to the performance of the team, the dynamics change. Everyone now has a vested interest in working well together. This may shine a light on the adverse effects of arrogance on team morale and productivity, and encourage change.

Conclusion

Whatever you do, don’t allow one or two arrogant individuals to contaminate the mood of others around them. Teams are cauldrons of emotion. One of your chief responsibilities as a leader, or as an organizational development, L&D or HR professional, is to pay attention to negative emotional contagion and to create an environment where team members can thrive and do their best work.

Have you ever had to deal with an arrogant co-worker? Or, has your own self-confidence ever been mistaken for arrogance? Share your experiences in the Comments, below.

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