The smartest guys in the room – how to deal with cultural arrogance
Written by Paul Eccleson on Monday July 25, 2022
Small, everyday scale arrogance is annoying; almost everyone has experienced that person who pontificates in meetings (and wastes the attendee’s time in the process). Large-scale arrogance, on the other hand, can bring down entire companies. Bethany McLean called her excellent book about the Enron collapse The Smartest Guys in the Room (2003). She was, of course, being ironic. The collapse was brought about by those who only thought they were the smartest. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Enron’s leaders covered up doom-laden financial figures in the overly confident belief that they could turn it around.
We can all be arrogant. As with many human attributes, there is a normal range of confidence in one’s own abilities that is essential in our lives and careers. Arrogance becomes a problem when self-belief develops into an exaggerated sense of personal abilities and self-worth.
- Over confidence in the quality of information available and the ability to understand it. We are presented with imperfect information every minute of our lives. As human beings we have a spectacular capability to focus on just a small component of our environment and ‘fill in the blanks’ for the rest. As a result, it’s been found that we can miss something as seemingly unmissable as a clown on a unicycle pass by us, simply because we are absorbed in a mobile telephone call. More succinctly, the world we perceive is not a world of matter, but what our brain believes Arrogant people assume that the information upon which they base their opinions is very strong, and overestimate their ability to understand and use that information.
- Reluctance to search for and accept information that challenges the hubristic self-view. ‘My side bias’ or ‘confirmation bias’ occurs when an individual accepts information that supports their existing view, but dismisses information which challenges that position. This can even be the case when individuals are presented with counter arguments that they, themselves, used at another point in time.
- Reluctance to take other perspectives. Once an arrogant person has come to an opinion, disregarding the advice of others is common. Such a person can be perceived as arrogant if the dismissal is clearly unjustified by the individual’s own competence, or whether the dismissal is considered as rude and/or condescending.
- Belief in your own superiority and the denigration of others. Confidence in one’s own abilities, my side bias and a disregard for the positions of others can develop into an unhealthy assumption of superiority over others. Additionally, perceived power brings with it an increased likelihood of breaking rules whilst also deploring that action in those seen as inferior. It may also lead to some extreme ‘self aggrandisement’ changes in language; the use of the ‘Royal We’, feeling only accountable to others considered to have ‘elite’ status or, in extreme cases, only to a deity.
- Arrogance is correlated with positions of power. Arrogance is highly correlated with the need for power over others. As such, we are likely to see persons in positions of authority demonstrating exaggerated self-belief and denigration of others.
- A culture of arrogance can take hold. The presence of arrogant members in a team can lead to a ‘cascade of arrogance’, where those around the hubristic individual will also acquire the same tendencies. Under these conditions, the group consensus leads to an incomplete survey of alternatives, poor information search, and selective bias in processing information at hand. All of these are symptoms of an organisation in which arrogance has taken a firm hold.
Arrogance manifests particularly amongst senior staff (where taking responsibility for decisions, demonstrating confidence and ‘saying it as it is’ can be valued skills). What can we do to prevent or mitigate the effects of such arrogance?
- Don’t go toe-to-toe in confrontation – especially if that person is in a position of power. We’ve seen that hubris tends to make people reject ideas from others, possibly leading to denigration of anyone insubordinate enough to make the challenge. Simply confronting an arrogant individual is likely to lead to you being marginalised and being seen as a trouble-maker.
- Use ‘pull’ behaviours, don’t ‘push’ much. Arrogant people will respond badly to being ‘pushed’ by demands, threats and imposed timescales. ‘Pull’ behaviours will be a much more effective influencing approach. Active listening, finding common ground, exploring the other’s position and understanding their pressures and goals is much more likely to achieve a rational compromise than more aggressive approaches.
- Gently explore the justifications behind the decisions being made. Arrogance is built upon a layer of unquestioning faith in the strength of the information available and an unwavering belief that assumptions are correct. Exploring those assumptions, testing hypotheses and asking ‘how might this fail?’ is likely to encourage better decision-making, and a less hubristic approach to management and strategy.
- Some people’s opinions, even senior manager opinions, don’t actually matter. Draw up a stakeholder map for what you are trying to achieve. Ask yourself whether the person that you are concerned about actually matters to your success or failure? Does their hubristic opinion really make any difference? Choose to influence only those that matter.
Arrogance is an unpleasant trait to deal with in our career. It is, however, perennial. Learning how and when to face it will be a long-term useful skill.
You may also like:
 Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron
 Hyman et al, Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone, July 2010: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/acp.1638 – accessed May 2022
 The Dunning-Kruger effect is a great example of this. When asked to estimate their performance on a task, two types of people tend to exhibit high levels of confidence in their abilities – experts in the area, and complete novices.
 Emmanuel Trouche et al, The Selective Laziness of Reasoning, 9 October 2015: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cogs.12303 – accessed May 2022
 Maxim Milyavsky et al, Evidence for arrogance: On the relative importance of expertise, outcome, and manner. 6 July 2017: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0180420 – accessed May 2022
 Joris Lammers et al, Power increases hypocrisy: moralizing in reasoning, immorality in behavior, May 2010: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20483854/ – accessed May 2022
 Peter Garrard et al, Linguistic biomarkers of Hubris syndrome, June 2014: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010945213002165 – accessed May 2022
 Susan Krauss Whitbourne, ‘What makes the Arrogant Person So Arrogant?’, Psychology Today, 2 May 2017: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201705/what-makes-the-arrogant-person-so-arrogant – accessed May 2022
 Joey Cheng, et al, The Social Transmission of Overconfidence, 2021: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/566758ef1115e07461dafb0f/t/6005df3ace24650c8846b4b1/1610997566765/social-transmission-overconfidence.pdf – accessed May 2022
 Irving L. Janis, Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes.
 The Sheppard-Moscow influencing model described at: Desmond Harney, ‘Optimising Persuasive Impact: Pull AND Push – but Pull first!’, 28 September 2021: https://www.gpb.eu/2021/09/optimising-persuasive-impact-pull-and-push-but-pull-first.html – accessed May 2022