I was surprised that at two recent workshops, delegates indicated that the attitudes and/or behaviours that they least like dealing with was arrogance. More so than anger, aggression and sadness. During another training scenario, I noticed that people acting in a superior way evoked similarly strong negative reactions. So this article is about dealing with “difficult” people – Nine strategies for dealing with arrogance. I describe arrogance, consider its underlying causes and suggest some strategies for dealing with interactions with people who are perceived as arrogant.
What is arrogance?
Arrogance is defined as: “an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions”. Often, an arrogant person will exert themselves by undermining others, especially junior or ‘weaker’ co-workers.
Arrogance usually involves exaggerating one’s own worth or importance – often with an overbearing or superior manner that overlooks or dismisses others. Some say arrogance is an offensive attitude of superiority – where people think they are better than everyone else. Others describe arrogance as unhealthy pride, misplaced over-confidence or “weaponized pride”. Arrogance creates interpersonal distance – it pushes people away.
In some cultures and societies, arrogance – or over-confidence – is valued and rewarded. Those who push themselves forward, dominate conversations, are highly competitive and disregard or overpower those around them can succeed in some (toxic) corporate cultures.
Arrogant people more about winning than about friendship – they are more focused on the task than relationships. So they may achieve a lot of business success and others thereby “tolerate” their arrogant behaviour as it is so commercially rewarding. But arrogance feels at odds with the zeitgeist that favour more collaborative approaches.
It should be said that when arrogance becomes bullying or bigotry it should not be tolerated. Senior Management and/or Human Resources professionals should be involved where this is the case.
How do arrogant people behave?
We have to be careful as arrogance is often in the eye of the beholder. We each have a different view of the world and may differ in what we perceive as arrogant behaviour. But typically, the following behaviours might be considered arrogant:
- Self-centred – Arrogant people rule their world. They are self-important. They don’t recognise or accept that other people may have a different world view. They act in a selfish way without thinking about the impact on others – perhaps arriving late, interrupting and pushing forward their ideas.
- Overconfident and closed – They believe they have all the answers. So they don’t ask others for their opinions. And they don’t listen to others. They are closed to different views and new ideas.
- Dislike challenge – They believe they are right. They need to be right. They are likely to become angry if you question or challenge their views. They will be dismissive of – and perhaps negative about – alternative views.
- Few close friendships – They may have a large number of contacts but they are likely to have few close friends. They may also talk poorly about or demean the friends they do have behind their backs. They will try to one-up their friends.
- Charming but cruel – Like sociopaths, they may appear charming and thoughtful to win people’s support. They may be superficial and dishonest. Yet the charming façade hides a ruthless desire to dominate and win.
- Need to look good – They might overstate their contribution or downplay the success of others. They may undermine others. They like being in the spotlight. They may associate themselves with other successful people and avoid people that they do not feel reflects or enhances their position. They may pursue materialistic and status goods to make them look (and feel) better.
- Treat others poorly – They may treat subordinates, waiting staff, or other people who cannot benefit them poorly. An arrogant person will often think of themselves as being above the dirty work that gets a good job accomplished. So they may leave their colleagues to do the lion’s share of the work – while claiming the glory.
- No accountability – They will not accept responsibility for faults, errors or negative things. They may blame others. They may try to take credit for things that they didn’t do or for the successes of their colleagues.
Readers who have attended my workshops on dealing with “difficult” people may recognise this behaviour in the Caesar, Bulldozer and Shrek characters.
Why are people arrogant?
Arrogance can be seen as a self-preservation method for those with fragile self-esteem and a poor sense of self-worth. The person may have a difficult time feeling okay with themselves, so they construct a reality around them that proves they are worthy to themselves. That may stem from a deeper place, like a parent or carer that made them feel worthless or unworthy of love when they were young.
They seek to dominate and control because they are afraid of being dominated and controlled. Added to this, arrogant people often lack the self-awareness to know that their behaviour is upsetting to others.
How do you deal with arrogant people?
There are a number of things that you can do to communicate and work more effectively with people you perceive as arrogant. And to protect yourself from the consequences of their arrogant behaviour.
Check your perceptions
You perceive someone’s behaviour as arrogant and have labelled it as such. This means you will be more aware of their other behaviours that support your perception of them as arrogant. Was it a one-off incident that caused you to think of them as arrogant – or is it an ongoing pattern of behaviour? A simple cue such as someone speaking at a high volume may make you perceive them as arrogant. Sometimes people may act on an overbearing way or appear to be braggarts if they suffer from social anxiety and try desperately hard to join in and fit in.
Be aware that people in other cultures may act in a way that you perceive as arrogant but are common in their cultures. Cross-cultural awareness may help you here. Also consider whether you are reminded of someone else who you felt was arrogant by some aspect of their appearance or behaviour (in psychology this is called projection or transference). We all have things that trigger unpleasant memories and associations.
Keep your emotions in check
Emotional regulation is a skill learned in childhood but can be developed throughout life. Emotional Intelligence describes our ability to be aware of and manage our emotions. When faced with arrogant behaviour we are likely to have an emotional reaction. Often the “threat” to our confidence or identity triggers a fight, flight or freeze response. This chemical reaction changes our physiology and reduces our ability to think calmly and rationally. So we need to be better able to regulate our emotional responses so that we respond to arrogant behaviour appropriately.
Make sure your self-confidence is intact
The best defence against an arrogant person is self-confidence. There’s help on improving your self-confidence and confidence in this article and there is a short video on building your confidence.
Your sense of self-worth is how you ensure that arrogant people’s petty attacks or attempts to undermine you have no impact. If your colleagues know you are a confident and competent person then the words of an arrogant person will have little traction with them.
Be tolerant, compassionate and diplomatic
An arrogant person may try to push your buttons, get under your skin and promote an emotional response. A good way to handle this is with friendliness and diplomacy.
Understand their belittling actions. And be mindful that what is driving their behaviour is their poor self-esteem. They sometimes deserve our pity and compassion. Act wisely and in control. Try not to escalate the situation by responding in an angry or hostile manner.
This may throw the arrogant person off their game because they are looking for a specific reaction of hostility out of you. If you do react with hostility and anger, what comes next is usually a display of feigned offense or hurt. They may use your anger to paint themselves as the victim so they can look good and maintain their façade (you might find this short video on the drama triangle helpful here).
Responding diplomatically takes away their leverage and power. You need to remain calm and start asking questions that seek the facts in a situation such as “Is that what happened? Someone else mentioned that…” or “Can you clarify or elaborate on that please…?”
Another approach is to support their ego while probing for the truth: “You seem really knowledgeable about this – do you specialise in this area?”
Be careful about confrontation unless you want an argument
Be careful about accusing arrogant people of lying or calling them out as this is likely to turn into an unproductive argument. Sometimes it is better to let their posturing pass you by – the so-called “Smile and Wave” approach.
Arrogant people often have problems with their self-worth, so they construct a fictional reality around them to convince themselves they are better than they are. So if you challenge that reality, you will usually evoke an angry response. They may act shocked or offended about an accusation as a means to try to reassert control over the situation. They may also just try changing the subject when they get called out.
But sometimes that conflict needs to happen because they are doing something that can harm you or others. In that scenario, be ready for an argument that goes in circles or nowhere in particular. There are resources on dealing with conflict effectively.
Disinterest and boredom are other possible response to subtle digging by an arrogant person.
Limit the information that you share with them
Any information that you share with an arrogant person may be used as ammunition later. They may betray confidences or manipulate the truth as a way to control a narrative and to make themselves look good.
So limit the amount and type of information that you share with them. Keep conversations surface level and polite. Avoid engaging with negative comments about other people.
Arrogant people will want to be involved so they understand you better – so they can learn what makes you tick and what will make you react. They want to know whether you are the sort of person who will believe what they say without challenge. So avoid engaging at a deeper level.
Change the subject
Where an arrogant person is trying to dominate a conversation try to shift the conversation to a different topic at a suitable point. Hopefully, this will create enough space for others to start making a contribution. Although it is possible that the arrogant person will again try to become the centre of attention by sharing anecdotes and stories on the new topic.
Be honest and maintain your boundaries
Sometimes you just have to establish and enforce your boundaries.
This requires you to have good assertiveness skills. Or you may have to ask a third person – perhaps someone in authority – to provide some feedback to the person exhibiting the arrogant behaviour. In some cases, it may help to involve a mediator.
If you’re okay with conflict, you can inform the person that you feel they are acting arrogantly and that you don’t appreciate it. Do not accuse them of being arrogant – focus on the behaviour. People can’t change who they are – but they can change their behaviour. However, being assertive in this way may mean that they see you as the enemy and may focus future negative behaviour in your direction. And this may be behind your back so you are not aware of it.
Disengage and walk away
The best way to manage an interaction with an arrogant person is to not deal with them at all. So explore whether it is necessary to interact with them or whether there are other ways to achieve what needs to be done without interacting with them.
But where it can’t be avoided, keep the conversation short and focused. Minimise the interaction as much as possible. And keep detailed notes in case what was discussed is ever brought into question.