Small, everyday arrogance is annoying—almost everyone has experienced that person who pontificates in meetings and wastes attendees’ time in the process. Large-scale arrogance, on the other hand, can bring down entire companies.
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Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind called their book about the Enron collapse “The Smartest Guys in the Room.” They were, of course, being ironic. The collapse was brought about by those who only thought they were the smartest. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Enron’s leaders covered up doom-laden financial figures in the overly confident belief they could turn it around.
We can all be arrogant. As with many human attributes, there is a normal range of confidence in one’s own abilities that is essential in our lives and careers. Arrogance becomes a problem, though, when self-belief develops into an exaggerated sense of personal abilities and self-worth.
Consider the following examples:
- Overconfidence in the quality of information available and the ability to understand it. We are presented with imperfect information every minute of our lives. As human beings, we have a spectacular capability to focus on just a small component of our environment and “fill in the blanks” for the rest. As a result, it’s been found we can miss something as seemingly unmissable as a clown on a unicycle pass by us, simply because we are absorbed in a mobile telephone call. More succinctly, the world we perceive is not a world of matter, but what our brain believes. Arrogant people assume the information upon which they base their opinions is strong and overestimate their ability to understand and use that information.
- Reluctance to search for and accept information that challenges the hubristic self-view. “Side bias” or “confirmation bias” occurs when an individual accepts information that supports their existing view but dismisses information that challenges that position. This can even be the case when individuals are presented with counter arguments they used at another point in time.
- Reluctance to take other perspectives. Once an arrogant person has come to an opinion, disregarding the advice of others is common. Such a person can be perceived as arrogant if the dismissal is clearly unjustified by the individual’s own competence or whether the dismissal is considered as rude and/or condescending.
- Belief in your own superiority and the denigration of others. Confidence in one’s own abilities and a disregard for the positions of others can develop into an unhealthy assumption of superiority. Perceived power brings with it an increased likelihood of breaking rules. It might also lead to some extreme “self-aggrandizement” changes in language; the use of the “royal we,” feeling only accountable to others considered to have “elite” status or, in extreme cases, a deity.
- Arrogance is correlated with the need for power over others. As such, we are likely to see persons in positions of authority demonstrating exaggerated self-belief.
- The presence of arrogant members in a team can lead to a “cascade of arrogance,” where those around the hubristic individual will also acquire the same tendencies. Under these conditions, the group consensus leads to an incomplete survey of alternatives, poor information search, and selective bias in processing information at hand. All these are symptoms of an organization in which arrogance has taken hold.
Arrogance manifests particularly among senior staff, where taking responsibility for decisions, demonstrating confidence, and saying “it as it is” can be valued skills. What can we do to prevent or mitigate the effects of such arrogance?
- Don’t go toe-to-toe in confrontation, especially if that person is in a position of power. We’ve seen hubris tends to make people reject ideas from others. Simply confronting an arrogant individual is likely to lead to you being marginalized and seen as a troublemaker.
- Use “pull” behaviors. Arrogant people will respond badly to being “pushed” by demands, threats, and imposed timescales. Pull behaviors will be a more effective influencing approach. Active listening, finding common ground, exploring the other’s position, and understanding their pressures and goals is more likely to achieve rational compromise than more aggressive approaches.
- Gently explore the justifications behind the decisions being made. Arrogance is built upon a layer of unquestioning faith in the strength of the information available and an unwavering belief assumptions are correct. Exploring those assumptions; testing hypotheses; and asking, “How might this fail?” are likely to encourage better decision-making and a less hubristic approach to management and strategy.
- Some opinions, even those of senior managers, don’t matter. Draw up a stakeholder map for what you are trying to achieve. Ask yourself whether the person you are concerned about matters to your success or failure. Does their hubristic opinion really make any difference? Choose to influence only those that matter.
Arrogance is an unpleasant trait to deal with in our careers. It is, however, perennial. Learning how and when to face it will be a long-term useful skill.
The International Compliance Association is a sister company to Compliance Week. Both organizations are under the umbrella of Wilmington plc.