By JT Benton, of the Tempe Bentons
First off, long post alert about arrogance. Like, 1,140 words long (10 minute read). And even though our VP of Marketing Rob Stevenson keeps telling me that short form is better, this piece just came out this way. So read at your own discretion.
Last year, I wrote about curiosity as a defining characteristic of great sales and business development people. In that piece, I pointed to the trait as the one most present in highly successful people I’ve met in this line of work.
Today, I’m writing about a different trait, which I think can have the most destructive effect on the work we do: arrogance.
Among those character traits we must endure, I’d argue there’s nothing worse. Compulsive lying, negativity, insincerity, laziness can all make their case for being worse – but we largely remove these behaviors from our lives.
Good people and good companies can just decide not to associate with dishonest, nasty, insincere or lazy people for very long. But, we all have to manage relationships with arrogant people. Could be your boss, your employee or peer. Or your counterpart on a deal that’s really important to you.
Worse yet, it could be you.
And since arrogance in business isn’t going anywhere, I thought maybe we should talk about it. Read on (unless, of course, you’re too busy or important or already know all about this)…
Webster’s Dictionary defines arrogance as ‘an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions.’ For interpersonal, non-commercial relationships, this definition works. We see it when we meet a person who acts as a know-it-all, or comes off as smarter, wiser, cooler or better.
But I think there’s another kind of arrogance that we often see in business development. This one is far more innocent and totally avoidable. I call it cover-up arrogance. Cover-up arrogance happens when we try to cover up our deficiencies. It’s the imitation of confidence when we’re not really confident about something.
This plays out when we feel ‘less than’ and we feel bad about it. This can be because we’re incorrect, don’t know the answer to a question or just aren’t completely prepared – and we feel guilty. Instead of fessing up, we beat our chest or make larger claims than we should.
Confidence vs. Arrogance
Given how negatively we experience arrogance, one would think we’d all be constantly worried about being perceived this way. You’d think we’d avoid it at all costs in our own behavior, and that it would largely go away.
But that’s not the case. In fact, the ugliest truth on this topic is that we’re all arrogant at least some of the time. It’s unavoidable. I think this is because arrogance and confidence keep very close company, and because our behavior is ultimately decided through the way others experience it.
For business development folks, confident communication is a must, but too much confidence or insincere confidence will likely be perceived as arrogance. Think of confidence like it was a product you use to enhance something. Like mayonnaise on a sandwich. Without it, you’ve got yourself dry, plain food. Add too much of it, though, you’re left with an unpalatable and offensive mess.
For anyone who has to persuade others as part of their job, arrogance can be an occupational hazard. And because everyone has a different threshold for what they think is arrogant behavior, it doesn’t seem possible to avoid ever being seen or experienced as arrogant and still do our job. Here, folks, we have a bummer.
How to avoid being arrogant while remaining confident
I’m terrified of coming across as arrogant, and yet, I know I can be guilty of it. When I receive feedback that I’ve been too brash or come off too strong, I reel back and I question everything. To me, this is the worst kind of feedback. So, I’ve got a vested interest in figuring out the very best ways to avoid this.
This applies to WorkBook6’s team, too – our work demands that we communicate influentially on behalf of our clients. We make a lot of assertions and recommendations, and we are asked to appropriately justify these perspectives. This is fertile ground for arrogant behavior, were we not paying attention to it.
So, we talk about this a lot. How do we stay aggressive without overdoing it? While the answers are constantly evolving, we’ve made it a cultural imperative to acknowledge it.
And we’ve made a point of enforcing the traits that soften our edge, without lessening our position. These efforts have formed a sort of behavior map for us to follow and leverage when we find ourselves at risk. I’ve posted it, below:
- Be curious. A sub-trait of arrogance is an overt focus on one’s own self or one’s own purpose. It’s a red flag. To avoid it, we can work hard to develop our curiosity. One is far less likely to come across as arrogant if they demonstrate a sincere interest in their counterpart.
- Be relevant. This is curiosity’s partner. Once you’ve learned all you can about your counterpart, tailor your own contribution to tie into what they’ve shared. If you’ve listened well, you’ll be far more prepared to provide relevant content.
- Be vulnerable. This is, like, major. If you buy that ‘cover-up arrogance’ is a real thing and you want to avoid it, just be vulnerable. Say (and, mean) stuff like, ‘whoa – you stumped me; I don’t know the answer to that.’ and ‘I’m not sure I understand; can you help me better grasp this? Another great one when things get tense: “I think I made a mistake. Can we reset?” Most importantly, if you caught yourself (or someone else caught you) being arrogant, acknowledge it and apologize. If you’re dealing with a good person, the vulnerability should help you get back on track and build a great relationship.
- Soften the blow. When it is time to make a recommendation, you can still do so with conviction without being overbearing. Just soften the blow a bit. Try this: “I have a suggestion that I think might work. But if it doesn’t, I’d love your feedback…”
- Ask for criticism and be grateful for it. You care about doing a great job, right? Then find out if you’ve done that by asking. And if you learn you haven’t been your best or that you were off target, be grateful for the lesson. You’re better for it and you’ve demonstrated your willingness to invest in the relationship.
These are our best practices for doing great work and not being arrogant. But, we’d love our readers’ feedback.
Did we miss something?
Are there other great ways to mitigate this? Let us know – we’ll take any advice on this we can get!