Career Coach: The fine line between confidence and arrogance

May 15, 2011

During my interactions with recruiters, a popular topic that emerges is job candidates’ self-confidence. Our discussions usually focus on how well our students are able to “sell themselves.” We talk about the importance of nonverbal communications such as body language, strong eye contact, firm handshakes and dressing for success. As soon as you walk into an interview you are making an impression. The job candidates who convey poise and presence often have an edge on the competition.

But too much of a good thing can backfire. There is a fine line between self-confidence and arrogance. Most of the recruiters and organizational leaders I meet are looking for candidates who are “grounded” rather than those who like to boast or brag about their abilities and experiences. In short, being too assertive can turn off an interviewer and derail your job search. So what are some of the behaviors that you want to avoid?

According to recruiters, arrogant job candidates tend to:

•Answer questions almost too quickly, using “canned” or mechanical responses.

•Have a tendency to speak using overbearing and harsh tones and intimidating body language.

•Display limited active listening skills — instead of “listening to learn” what an interviewer has to say, they have a tendency to “listen to respond.”

•Ask too few questions in the interview and are more focused on letting the interviewer know why they are the best person for the job.

•Often neglect to acknowledge weaknesses.

•Can come across as self-righteous and stubborn, and some have a tendency to belittle or disregard others’ ideas (such as, “Although she was part of my team, she just had no clue about marketing products and services . . . as a result her recommendations added little value to our final team project”).

Leadership research points to additional signs and symptoms of excessive pride, such as a diminished capacity to learn, resistance to change, inability to recognize one’s limitations and an unwillingness to take responsibility for errors.

Unfortunately, my experience with students and executives whom I have coached is that they cross the line into arrogance without even knowing it. Although they’re smart, they just don’t seem to read the social cues or see how their behavior affects the people around them. Because they are so focused on themselves, they just don’t notice. Worse yet . . . in some cases, they just don’t seem to care about their impact on others.

If you find that you are guilty of some the behaviors above, rethink your approach and keep your ego in check:

•Instead of bragging about your personal achievements, find a way to spotlight someone else’s work. Consider talking up team triumphs.

•During interviews or when interacting with a recruiter, be careful not to interrupt and listen carefully to the questions asked before responding.

•Transform your arrogance into self-confidence by showing vulnerability — be willing to share past mistakes, limitations and fears.

•Be humble.

•Have the courage to discuss opposing ideas without being judgmental.

•Seek out learning partners and trusted colleagues and ask them for honest feedback. Where do they perceive you along the confidence-arrogance continuum? If they say that you come across as haughty at times, learn which behaviors give this impression.

•Finally, understand how confidence is expressed in the culture in which you’re working (modesty is valued in many Asian cultures, so you’ll want to tone it down a bit when interacting with Japanese employers and colleagues).

For some, arrogance and self-confidence are constant companions. Great leaders recognize that while self-assurance is critical for success, strong egos and too much bravado can derail career aspirations. Whether you’re participating in a job interview or leading a team, remember the formula for success includes projecting an appropriate degree of self-confidence and humility.

Jeffrey Kudisch is managing director of the Office of Career Services at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and a faculty expert in leadership, negotiations and human capital management. He has a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology and he co-founded Personnel Assessment Systems Inc., a human resource consulting firm specializing in executive assessment and leadership development.

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