Dealing with Arrogant Coworkers

Overconfidence is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many times we are actually lacking confidence, and we need to build ourselves up so we can set ourselves up for success. But confidence without humility looks a lot like arrogance, and it’s a trap that is shockingly easy to fall into. Complicating the situation, low confidence can actually cause people to act arrogant simply out of insecurity.

Humble: Having or showing a modest or low estimate of one’s own importance.

There are certain human drives that cause people to be arrogant. Mostly, it happens because we are unaware of the impact of these tendencies on our behavior. Knowing what is going on behind the scenes—what causes people to act this way—can be illuminating when it comes to collaborating and working well with others. Here are a few examples of why people exhibit arrogance:

We are intimidated by smart people

  • We are intimidated by others who are more intelligent. When someone says something we don’t understand or didn’t think of first, we might feel inadequate or even stupid. At the extreme, we may even avoid working and interacting with smarter people. This limits our connections to a good resource, shutting out an opportunity to expand our own learning. Being humble about things you don’t know, on the other hand, opens us up to the possibility of improvement.
  • On the other hand, if you have ever been considered a smart person, this means other people are occasionally intimidated by you! This often comes as a shock to people—we are often completely unaware of our effect. Downplaying your intelligence can be a wise move to collaborate better with others. There is no need to “act dumb,” but do maintain a balance; readily admit limits to your knowledge and ask questions often when you don’t know something. These actions will help them open up about their own weaknesses and gaps in knowledge.

We want to look good

  • Appearances can often be relative. Unfortunately, (and usually subconsciously) this can keep managers from acknowledging the talents and skills of others (a severe leadership mistake!). One of the simplest ways to encourage someone to give more praise and feedback is to first give them more praise and feedback.
  • We are afraid to admit what we don’t know, we are afraid of asking stupid questions, and we are afraid of appearing foolish. But asking questions is a good way to find problems and solutions and appearing foolish is a good way to authentically connect with others (see “intimidated by smart people” above). Show them the benefits of asking questions and admitting ignorance, since they are only looking at the downsides.

We act defensive

  • When someone points out an error/flaw or suggests a different way of doing things it can be very difficult to accept that what you were doing before was not ideal. This is a perfectionistic tendency. On the other hand, when you are open to admitting that you made mistakes, overlooked something, or quite frankly—don’t know everything—you are more likely to seek out feedback, you will truly hear that feedback, and you’ll improve drastically from there. Celebrate progress over performance to combat defensiveness.

Eva Rykrsmith

Eva Rykrsmith is an organizational psychology practitioner. Her passion lies in bringing a psychology perspective to the business world, with the mission of creating a high-performance environment. Follow her @EvaRykr.

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