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Why Arrogance is Poison, and 10 Questions You Can Ask So It's Not You

Arrogance – and its close cousin, hubris – are traits everyone encounters somewhere in their careers.  While it’s good to have a healthy ego and to have confidence and conviction, arrogance takes those attributes too far. Put simply, arrogant colleagues are dangerous. This is true whether they’re your boss, a more senior person in the organization, a peer, or a direct report. These people and their arrogance pose a threat to their teams, their co-workers, their companies, and themselves. For example:

  • They think too highly of themselves and overly rely on their own opinions, judgment, and expertise. They don’t listen well and are quick to dismiss others’ input. They’re self-centered, selfish, and sometimes immature. As a result, they make bad decisions that, more often than not, are harmful to their organizations and their co-workers.
  • They demean those around them, whether directly or indirectly. They’ll bend the truth toward what they want it to be, sometimes telling outright lies. From a position of power, they can make you (and others) absolutely miserable, destroying any chance you have to actually enjoy work and in the worst of cases, leaving you with a battered sense of self-confidence that can take a long time – and sometimes therapy – to get past. In short, they create or contribute to toxic work environments.
  • Their sense of ethics is fragile. They may publicly preach values and come across as principled, but ultimately they see themselves as above the rules or even immune to them. As a consequence, they will likely make dubious (and sometimes illegal) choices.

The Perils of Arrogance

To give you a stark sense of how dangerous arrogance can be, we’ve worked with at least five people from several organizations who have gone to jail for workplace misconduct. Their crimes included insider trading, expense fraud, mis-charging clients, and bribery. Arrogance played a part in all of these situations, and while it obviously hurt these individuals and their families, it also did enormous damage to the organizations in which they worked and, by extension, the other people who worked in those organizations. The financial damage ran to the level of tens – if not hundreds – of millions of dollars, in the form of lost business, legal fees, fines, audits, forensic accountants, and marketing money spent re-building of reputations.

In the course of our careers, we’ve worked for and with a much larger number of arrogant people. Some we have been able to accept as people outside of work. Others we’ve needed to rid from my life entirely. In almost all cases, we gave them the benefit of the doubt at work for too long, usually because their arrogance came with a positive track record of impact and success. Sooner or later, however, something went wrong for each of them. When that happened, it got bad, both for them and those around them. When these individuals crashed, they took others down with them, because their dismissal halted the broader momentum of their groups or because those around them were viewed as “guilty by association”, whether that label was fairly or unfairly earned.

The Role of HR in Addressing Arrogance, And Why It's Inconsistently Fufilled

How HR handles these situations can make a big difference. This is especially true in “star cultures” such as finance, professional services firms, entertainment, and sports. My own experience is that the odds are about 50/50 that HR and the company’s leadership more broadly will do the right thing. The odds are even worse if you judge whether the right thing was done soon enough and sufficiently enough. Too frequently, the company and HR try to coach the individual, move people who complain about them to other groups to diffuse the situation, turn a blind eye, or even publicly back the individuals. It’s wonderful to see a situation where swift, unequivocal action is taken, but you shouldn’t depend on it occurring.

To be clear, it often takes a brash leader to carry the day, to will something into being, to pull off the impossible. But if they’re truly arrogant, you’re always taking a risk in hitching yourself to their stars. They’re time bombs, and while you may benefit when they’re in their glory, you don’t want to be anywhere near them when that bomb goes off. Extract yourself from working with these people as quickly as you can.

10 Questions to Ask To Make Sure It's Not You

If you see something of yourself in all of this, you should consider these 10 questions:

  1. Do I have a realistic view of my strengths and weaknesses?
  2. Am I clear on how others perceive me?
  3. Do I know what my blind spots are?
  4. Do I surround myself with people who make up for what I lack?
  5. Do I listen to my colleagues well enough, irrespective of their level?
  6. Do I ask open-ended / non-leading questions?
  7. Do I act on good input from my colleagues?
  8. Do I prop up those around me and avoid cutting them down?
  9. Do I give positive feedback regularly and in view of other co-workers?
  10. Do I give negative / constructive feedback in private and using language that preserves the recipient’s dignity? Do these individuals walk away thinking “that feedback hurt, but it was fair and designed to help me be better?”

If you aren’t answering “yes” to these questions, you should make a commitment to change. Your career and your colleagues will thank you for it.

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