It’s good to be competent. Being arrogant, not so much. But they’re often related. Being smart, bright and clever leads to competence in many areas related to business success. But having these intellectual gifts also means that one gets used to being right, being perceived as a good problem-solver and being highly valued by others. And this leads to arrogance.
Intelligence and arrogance are components of two of the major fundamental competencies necessary for full success in business, the Intellectual and Interpersonal factors. (These can be thought of as the Head and Heart competencies. The other two I-Competencies are Guts and Will – the Integrity and Intensity competencies.)
Plotted in a 2X2 grid, with brainpower on one axis and arrogance on the other, we see four basic combinations. Yes, this is simplistic, but it’s also a good way to frame more complex interactions. The quadrants and a few observations about them may help to provide context for this picture.
Low competence, low arrogance. Natural selection will be at work here, and consequently these people aren’t likely to rise to the executive ranks unless they’re related to someone in power. They may be delightful people to spend time with, but they don’t have the cleverness to solve complex business problems or the arrogance to bluff their way through. They’re too dumb to know when somebody’s peeing on their leg and too nice to tell them to quit if they realize it.
High Competence, low arrogance. These are the people who provide solid problem solutions and do so in a way that’s not offensive or abrasive. You want all of these folks you can get in your organization. But if the low arrogance is due to insecurity, you may need to do a lot of work to encourage them to take the initiative and go to bat for their solutions. They’re likely to expect their work to speak for them and may have trouble selling themselves when necessary and appropriate. They’re more likely to be facilitative and supportive in a leadership role than aggressive, charismatic or forceful.
Low competence, high arrogance. They’re dangerous. They don’t realize the limits of their ability and don’t have the good sense to ask for a second opinion. They may have been taught they were special early on, even though it should have been obvious that every kid on the team got an award. Hubris often equals being out of touch with reality. And this is often a result of unconditional praise and reinforcement. Kids who don’t have great powers of observation and reason too often believe the message that they’re special, just for existing. Nice for building self esteem, not for building leaders who can deal with challenges of business and anticipate the consequences of bad decisions. They can make a big splash early in their careers but they’ll usually flame out. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen and their unfounded self confidence can propel them far beyond their true abilities. Then, they can take the organization down unless they’re very lucky.
High competence, high arrogance. This is the most interesting group because of the competing forces of great potential and great danger. These people are often quite successful but they can also be destructive to morale and relationships, and ultimately to the organization. As leaders, they tend to oppress subordinates. If the boss is the brightest person in the room, and likely to cut someone off at the knees for “dumb” ideas, people quickly learn to keep their heads down and let the boss set the course. Sometimes that works, but usually not over the long term. Tight ships aren’t always happy ships.
The high competence, high arrogance leader can win any individual battle but lose the war. Bosses with this combination create subordinates who become adept at passive aggression. Of course they say all the right words and show appropriate compliance, but they secretly take pleasure in the inevitable obstacles and setbacks the high competence/arrogance style creates. And they will watch passively as the leader fails when in fact they could help. The world enjoys seeing bright but arrogant people get their comeuppance.
What do you do with such a person in your organization? If he/she is the boss, maybe just grin and bear it, hoping “this too shall pass” isn’t just an old proverb. If it gets too bad, you can always confront the boss, but don’t do it in a public arena. Of course you knew that. But we forget the obvious when we’ve had a belly full. If you have to confront such a boss, have clear facts, data and analyses to support your position, and state your reasons, methods and conclusions precisely. Who knows, you might just plant a positive seed. But you still may walk out with your head under your arm. If it’s really bad, maybe it’s time to ask the old Dear Abby question, “Is life better with or without him?” Or her. Maybe it’s time to get the old resume out.
If the competent but arrogant person is in mid-career of beyond, the chances for change are not particularly good. If he/she gets a real shock and a clear message that a change in behavior is needed, you might get some positive results with the right kind of intervention. In these cases, the coaching needs to be direct, targeted and crisp. These folks don’t suffer fools. Or fuzzy touchy-feely crap. There’s a lame old joke about how many shrinks it takes to change a light bulb (one, but the light bulb has to be really motivated to change). Well, that’s true with bright and arrogant executives. If they’re not motivated, use the money you’d spend on coaching to find a good headhunter instead. Sure, a headhunter’s fees will be higher than those of a coach, at least at the executive levels, but the time you waste keeping a truly toxic leader around (no matter how competent) and the damage he/she can continue to inflict could cost you a lot more. Our experience is that coaching rarely works with someone who needs to be fixed – unless there’s a huge dose of anxiety and motivation on the part of the fixee.
If the bright/arrogant person is early in his/her career, the prognosis for change is much more optimistic. A bright person’s first real disappointment or failure is a wonderful time to do an intervention. The two-by-four in the face early in a career is often one of the best things that can happen. Nothing’s more fun than working with a bright and arrogant person who has just had the flash of insight that says “uh-oh…I screwed up and I’m not sure what to do here.” Well, actually there are other things more fun but they’re outside the scope of this screed.
Arrogance is sometimes a cover for insecurity. But, at least in business, it’s often driven by the combination of early success, being one of the smartest kids in the class, and having been rewarded for cleverness. If it’s due to an insecure, brittle ego, longer term counseling and therapy may help. But business organizations typically don’t have the luxury of waiting around.
High intelligence tends to foster arrogance. It’s the rare leader indeed who has great intelligence, the humility to realize the limits of his/her competence, the courage to seek out contradictory information, the ability to correct course in the face of new feedback and data, but still retain the confidence to stick with his/her convictions in the face of obstacles and pressure. When selecting leaders, look for high intelligence and appropriate confidence. But also look for humanity and insight. These are the things that can’t easily be taught or coached.
This article reflects some thoughts I’m refining for a section of a book in progress. I’m familiar with much of the research and argument on both sides of the question about the nature of intelligence (is it a constant or can it be developed?) but I’d appreciate any new insights or observations from readers. If you have any recent references from research journals, or anecdotes to illustrate either position, email me. I can’t offer money or prizes – and can’t even guarantee I’ll be able to answer all emails, but I’ll be delighted to acknowledge any contributions in print. Then you’ll be on your way to fame and fortune. Or at least you’ll have made my life easier.
Hodges L. Golson, Ph.D. is President and a founding partner of Management Psychology Group. He is a licensed psychologist and board certified in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Organizational and Business Consulting Psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology. He is the author of Influence for Impact and a founder of eTest.net. He consults with top executives in a wide range of organizations about some of the unique issues of leadership at the top and about the selection and development of key executives and senior leadership teams.