How Do Confidence and Arrogance Work in the Workplace?

By Joe Jones, Ph.D. May 3, 2016
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What is your immediate reaction when you hear someone laughing louder than anyone else or dominating a discussion, not letting anyone else's laughter or opinions be heard? Do you consider that person confident—or arrogant? 

Opinions differ on whether the line between confidence and arrogance is narrow or a bit wider. But, as an HR professional, crossing that line can harm your real or perceived capabilities as a leader, colleague or contributor.

Confidence—the belief that you can reach your own potential—is a positive trait, unless it turns into overconfidence. People see confident people as knowledgeable, able to get things done quickly and effectively, and ready to lead. Confidence is contagious: A confident member of a team can help other team members feel more confident as well, and being around confident people can help reduce one's own uncertainty and fears.

Arrogance is a lack of empathy and inability to see things from others' points of view. People see arrogant people as having an inflated self-perception of power. Arrogance is a defense mechanism: It closes people off, it repels. Research published by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology indicates that arrogance is related to lower cognitive ability and self-esteem.

Increasing your confidence and reducing your arrogance—real or perceived—develops your proficiency in the HR competencies of Relationship Management, Communication, and Leadership & Navigation.

Consider two scenarios involving a senior-level HR professional who is leading a change management initiative and wants to build a supportive coalition of division leaders to champion that effort.

In the first scenario, the HR professional acts with confidence. She speaks with assurance, clearly and realistically describing the initiative's timeline and potential challenges to its completion. She anticipates stakeholder needs. She listens patiently to the division leaders' questions and discusses how their concerns will be addressed. In so doing, she appears confident to the people whom she wants to commit to the cause. She also makes them feel more confident that the effort will succeed and addresses their specific concerns.

In the second scenario, the HR professional acts with arrogance. She interrupts the division leaders when speaking and dismisses their concerns. She focuses on her own needs, making grand statements about her past experience driving change at “bigger companies.” In so doing, she appears arrogant. The effect on her listeners is the opposite of what she wants: She turns away potential allies. They feel that she is hiding something about the change initiative, is not really listening to them and will not address their specific concerns.

Through the HR competencies of Relationship Management, Communication, and Leadership & Navigation, you can help your colleagues become more confident in themselves and bring people together to accomplish mutual goals. This is unachievable if you push people away.

Try the following to increase your confidence and reduce your (real or perceived) arrogance:

  • Create a list of situations in which you have felt most confident, and determine why. Create a similar list of situations in which you think you were perceived as arrogant. Make a plan to change your behavior. What will you do in the future in similar situations?
  • Take a month off from sharing your opinions. At meetings, reduce the time that you voice your opinion by half, while doubling the time you listen to what others say. Hold back judgment until you have processed all the issues and thoughts expressed.
  • Ask for feedback from your employees, co-workers, friends, boss or anyone else you interact with on a regular basis. Do they perceive your behavior as arrogant or confident? If they perceive arrogance, ask for advice on what you can do differently. If they perceive a lack of confidence, ask for advice on how to improve.
  • Seek out mentors or shadow colleagues who come across as confident but not arrogant. What do they do that makes them special? Ask for their suggestions on changing your behavior.
  • Take a personality test or other assessment of your leadership abilities. Look for assessments that provide feedback and suggestions to capitalize on your strengths and address areas in need of development.

As HR leaders, it is important that we build our confidence and avoid arrogance, while attracting others in moving forward toward a common mission.

Joe Jones, Ph.D., is director of HR competencies at SHRM. 

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