Sometimes it starts with an eye roll. Maybe a proposal of yours gets rejected and one you think sounds pretty dumb gets approved in its place. Ugh. You try keeping your feelings to yourself, but your reaction inside is defensive: “They don’t get it!” or, worse, “How could they be so stupid!?”
It’s natural to get frustrated at work, and it’s fine to grab a coworker if you really need to vent. But there’s often an undertone of arrogance to reactions like these, and it can get in your way if you aren’t careful. While you’re busy feeling self-righteous, like the only smart one in the room, you’re probably not thinking, “How could I make it better?” or “Maybe they don’t understand.” Which means you’re asking fewer questions and probably doing lower-quality work than you could be–which in the long run isn’t so good for your career.
Here’s how to avoid all that.
Where Arrogance Really Comes From
“Will I have to dumb down my work to win this business?” I heard that one from a coaching client the other day. The short answer, of course, was no. But the longer one was that my frustrated client would need to figure out why that felt like the only option.
Most of the time, arrogance is used to cover the fear that we’re not really worthy, that we don’t measure up. It’s fear turned upside down and masquerading as superiority. That isn’t too hard to see, at least not in principle. But in practice, it can be tough to correct. Over the long term, this type of reaction can leave you missing out on the best assignments and opportunities of your career. I’ve seen that happen repeatedly in clients, colleagues, and myself.
There’s a reason for arrogance, though, especially when it comes to our work: It’s a self-protection mechanism we set up around things we care about–work we’re really proud of or skills we know we bring to the table. But it also blocks our ability to understand and help others, and there’s no way around it: No matter what you do, collaborating, communicating, and finding common ground is crucial to your own success.
But if those periodic flare-ups of arrogance let you know that something you care about is being questioned or jeopardized, tuning into them differently can help you figure out the underlying fear–and do something more productive about it.
Catching Yourself In The Act
I was fostered at birth, adopted, and then fostered again. I know what rejection feels like. Early in my life, I got into the habit of lapsing into judgmental superiority whenever I feared being an outsider. But having spent parts of my life yearning to be part of a group, I’ve had more than my fair share of chances to catch myself using arrogance to preempt the disappointment of failing to.
The key, though, is that I have caught myself–something I only learned to do gradually and with real effort. After a long career as a creative professional, and now was a business coach to creatives, I see myself and my clients falling in and out of arrogance as we deal with difficult interpersonal situations.
And I’ve found that in order to avoid that pattern, you’ve first got to learn how to know when you’re doing it, then reverse roles with the object of your arrogance–this way you can learn something about yourself. It isn’t easy, but there are really only two mental habits you need to practice:
Catch yourself in the act. I’m sitting across the table from a guy with a PhD, and it just became clear that I know some obscure fact that he doesn’t know. I exult in this. “I can’t believe how stupid he is!” I think to myself, and a feeling of relief sweeps over me. That’s my queue. Whenever you catch yourself thinking something that makes you feel better during an anxiety-laden interaction, it’s probably your arrogance swooping in to spare you from vulnerability. Take note!
Reflect on the source of your fear. Right after tuning into my relief that the PhD isn’t an all-knowing super-genius comes the realization that I’ve stumbled upon a fundamental truth about myself–something I already know but tend to bury: It’s my old lack of education surfacing, that old fear or not fitting in or measuring up. I’ve just mentally switched from feeling inferior to superior. But now I’ve just noticed myself doing that, and what’s more, I understand why.
Digging Under The Surface
Once you cognitively capture this emotional reality underneath the surface, you regain some self-control. Now you can turn it over, examine it, and think about what it means. Best of all, you can prevent it from damaging those crucial interpersonal relationships that your career depends on.
Personally, I know that this knee-jerk mental reaction is a repeating behavior of mine. It’s not rational–it’s automatic, instantaneous, and completely emotional, and it’s probably never going away completely. But that’s just fine, because it triggers a mental response I’ve learned to keep handy:
I’m neither inferior nor superior to this guy. I’m a person with my own strengths and weaknesses. So is he. His accomplishments are balanced by his fundamental humanity. Do I really want or need a PhD? Nah. Can I help him? Can he help me? Maybe.
To be fair, I haven’t always pulled off this kind of self-correction (and sometimes still don’t), and you won’t every time either. But practicing it can help spare you from those moments where others catch you getting all smug and self-righteous before you’ve managed to catch yourself.
And when you do, you won’t just come across as a more humble, self-possessed, emotionally intelligent person. You’ll also reduce your own anxiety. That lets you build relationships with people that take both of you forward, rather than stay weighed down by old, familiar fears.