You may suspect that the arrogant, hyper-critical jerk guy in the office next to you is overcompensating for a lack of something, but what? Turns out it’s not a lack of basic human decency, but instead it’s most likely a self-esteem deficit.
According to research cited on the I/O at Work site (I/O = Industrial / Organizational Psychology), there’s a correlation between arrogant behavior and a person’s perception of worth.
You probably don’t really care if this person has low self-esteem, right?
You might want to start. Beyond the warm-and-fuzzy angle there’s an implication for workplace performance. Researchers cited in an article called Waging WARS on Workplace Arrogance, report that
While arrogant employees engage in behaviors that exude superiority, they actually appear to be less intelligent and receive lower performance ratings than employees who are less arrogant.
So if you are a managing this person’s work, or you must in some way gain this person’s support, guess what? You’re on the hook for figuring out a way to deal with it. Because this person’s attitude can ruin customer interactions, decrease workplace productivity and just plain get on everyone’s last nerve.
Yes, Really, There IS a Human Wrapped Inside that Jerk
I’m going to suggest a counter-intuitive approach: start to care about this person. Yeah, I know. This person is a really pain. It’s hard to care. Even a tiny little bit. But, care you must if you’re going to get past that superior attitude.
Here’s the thing: often, it’s the puffed-up people who have the deepest pain inside. Or, as the study authors from I/O at Work conclude, they’ve received the most negative feedback about their performance. Either way, they are covering up insecurity with obnoxious behavior.
How I Found a Way to Care
I once worked with someone who had a reputation for leaving “bodies in ditches” as a result of his arrogant, roughshod manner. One day, we were brainstorming and I could see that this person was not only intelligent but also highly creative – probably way more than his job required. I had a moment of insight – this guy was a square peg in a round hole at work. I found myself thinking, “It must really suck to be this out of place at work.” From that moment on, when I was frustrated with this person’s lack of interpersonal skill, I would draw on the fleeting moment of true empathy when I connected to his humanity – that soft underbelly that we all have – in a way that helped me see past his surly ways.
The Upshot in Dealing with Someone That’s Difficult to Work With
When dealing with a hard-to-like person at work, find something, anything that makes you empathize with this person. By connecting to a point of common ground, you’ll be able to see that person for the human he (or she) is, even if the behavior is unpalatable. Because going all Pee-Wee Herman, (“I Know You Are, But What Am I?”) just isn’t really going to work.
photo credit: istockphoto + modifications
My views on the below post:
a. Aren’t we undermining the long-term impact that the org. is going to have by tolerating arrogant employees, who doesn’t have empathy or respect towards others emotions?
b. Why should others – who in the view of arrogant employees are lesser morons – lose their self respect, just because they aren’t equal in talent/skills/knowledge to the arrogant employees.
I, as head of HR, have seen in my experience teams having a negative impact because of arrogant but highly-skilled employees. In cases where arrogant employees held high positions, organizations have lost precious time in building teams and have been pushed back.
May be, they can be of help in the roles where they can handle the responsibilities individually, but not the roles which require to be a team player.
Jennifer Miller says
Hello, and thanks for your fine reply!
The point of my post is not to advocate for arrogance, but rather to understand the root causes of arrogance – which is sometimes due to lack of confidence or self-esteem.
I have found that when we don’t have the leverage to require someone to dial down the arrogance (as a team leader, or head of HR, for example) then the best way to address the abrasive personality is to find a way to “go with the flow” rather than hit it head on.
It’s a mindset—instead of seeing the person as a thing, an “obstacle” to be overcome, I choose to see him/her as a human. I think people can sense that, and then they tend to respond in kind.
Am with you on that point of “go with the flow”, Jennifer.
BUT, what I have seen is, it is making the teams feel they are forced to “go with the flow” as org. is insisting so, by not really able to “tame down” or replace the arrogant employees.
It has called for lot of energy and time from HR, and lot of maturity from the other members of the team headed by arrogant employee, to understand the human wrapped inside.
Eventually, the other team members chose to leave, which in turn only affected the organization from a long-term team building perspective.
My take on this is – organizations must have the gumption to accept the hiring mistake and ready to replace the arrogant employees, instead of trying to pursue with them.
Jennifer Miller says
I think we’re seeing this issue from different perspectives, while agreeing on the overarching issue:
You are seeing it from the perspective of the HR person – someone who can (and should) take action to remove an arrogant employee who’s not willing to change.
I’m writing from the perspective of an individual contributor – the person who has to work with the arrogant person UNTIL such time as the arrogant person (should he/she choose not the change) is shown the door.
Jennifer Miller says
Jane, a very wise and pragmatic approach. Thanks for sharing.
Art Petty says
Jennifer, this is a fascinating and provocative topic that I imagine many of us have had to find ways to cope with over time. As a senior leader, I have no qualms “getting the toxicity” out of my teams (which is code for firing these types). As a co-worker, it’s a darned difficult and vexing experience to have to put up with one of these jerks.
I’ve observed in various settings where groups have taken responsibility for what their managers won’t do by ostracizing or at least marginalizing the individual. I’ve also been in situations where individuals worked the internal political system to make certain this person was as far removed from their projects as possible. I admit to struggling with cultivating my sense of empathy for someone who fits the label you describe in your post.
An early mentor had a take on this situation that while a bit shocking, resonated with me: “Try and empathize…do everything possible to build a bridge, and about the third time that you are stepped on in return, ethically, fairly and visibly crush this person in the workplace.”
The adverse impact on the culture, the productivity and creativity losses created by toxic employees and the drain on morale are too significant to rationalize their behavior for long. -Art
Jennifer Miller says
I’m with you– it’s REALLY difficult to cultivate any empathy whatsoever. But, in the short run, as an individual contributor, it can help as a temporary fix.
As both you and Prsad point out, from a leadership perspective it’s incumbent on leaders to take action to remove these folks. Of course, if the leader is the arrogant one, well, that’s a topic for another post.
If I recall, you and I (and a few others) wrote about a similar type of “leadership challenge” in which the offender also happens to be brilliant:
“While arrogant employees engage in behaviors that exude superiority, they actually appear to be less intelligent and receive lower performance ratings than employees who are less arrogant.”
What crock of nonsense. CLEARLY none of you work with attorneys, judges and lawmakers. They more arrogant the employee, the more they are praised and compensated. Not arrogant? Consider changing your name to Matt, b/c they’ll walk all over you.