Arrogance – can it be useful?

Sukh Pabial wrote a post on speaking Truth to Power. It’s worth checking out here as it raises a very interesting question about how you can cultivate organisational voice and how organisations can create conditions for individuals to speak out.

It also raised for me the interesting concept of which individuals are most likely to speak out – and so I suggested that this might be a situation in which someone who is arrogant might be ‘organisationally useful’. It is fair to say that this did not go down well with people… Or it went down very well in the way that a lead balloon goes down very well. The idea of arrogant people being anything other than an organisational liability was not one of my more popular proposals.

I’m not writing this blog in defence of arrogant people, I’m writing this because I think strengths and weaknesses are largely conceptual and contextual.

  • One person’s attention to detail is another person’s micromanagement
  • One person’s clear vision is another person’s lack of flexibility
  • One person’s charisma is another person’s attention seeking behaviour
  • One person’s unswerving mission to be heard is another person’s arrogance

If I was looking for one person to speak up in an organisation and ignore the constraints of hierarchy then I think a likely candidate to do that would be arrogant. They would be a person who just had to be heard and was convinced that the boss is wrong (even if the boss was more experienced and had more information than them). That’s my greatest percentage chance of success.

I don’t, in general. like arrogance as a trait – but I’m not willing to write off anyone in terms of usefulness. In a position where people are scared or unwilling to speak up having someone with the arrogance to insist on their voice being heard could be useful. There are a few corporate catastrophes over past years caused by arrogance, but perhaps some arrogance and bloodymindedness in the lower ranks might have helped raised the voice of dissent slightly earlier. It could hardly have made things worse.

If you want people to speak truth to power then an arrogant person armed with the truth is really quite a good one to deploy. A bit like knowing someone who can’t be concise is quite useful if you are in a position where you are stalling for time. It wouldn’t be a trait you would normally want someone to possess, but it can be handy in the right situation.

It’s a bit unpalatable thinking that people’s worst traits might be useful – and indeed most of the time people’s worst traits are just their worst traits, but I do think it is worth thinking about strengths in the workplace in the richest sense – and that includes being open to bad things being used in good ways.

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8 thoughts on “Arrogance – can it be useful?

  1. I like the notion of using (apparently) bad traits for good but struggle to look back at experiences or occasions that I can point to either inside or outside organisational life where it’s happened deliberately…

    Coming back to “arrogance” my sense of how that becomes manifest is that it also comes with a lack of care about truths or consequences. I’m not sure in the context being discussed those traits are useful?

    There’s also a difference here in terms of perception. The “confident” can appear “arrogant” but the difference is in the experience and the transparency of intent. I think that comes back to care about truths or consequences…

    • Thanks for the comment and sorry it got queued. I think there is probably a continuum of arrogance but I also think that being arrogant doesn’t preclude people from being right. I’ve known plenty of people who have an arrogance that stems from the fact they are actually regularly right. They are annoying but I still want them to have a voice and invariably they find a way to be heard. That is a strength (albeit with obvious linked weaknesses). I’ve certainly had conversations about the best person to send for conversations on a difficult topic and made that decision in a pragmatic way. Can they get this particular job done?

      I’ve got a piece on intent queued, meant to surface it for some time. I guess I’m just hugely practical at times about getting the job done – and having the right tool for the right job. I realise there is difference in opinion as to which people would be classed as tools (either sense of the word…).

      • I think the piece on arrogance that probably doesn’t sit well for me is the associated sense of superiority or self importance that comes with it. My own experience of such arrogance is that it often doesn’t stem from being regularly right. In fact it’s that arrogance that stops them from being right & even creating the insight I think we’re talking about.

        What you’ve described sounds to me like subject matter experts who have a certain personality or manner about them. What characterises them in many ways is that they are often very right but often don’t care deeply beyond their own area about what could be created from their insight. Not sure I’ve thought of this as a form of arrogance but is that close to your meaning perhaps?

        • That’s a subtle and really useful distinction. My point is less about focusing on character and more about useful deployment. If someone has a flaw that means that they are more predisposed than others to rock the boat then that seems like it could be useful in an organisation where others are fearful of it. I’m curious about challenge (you can feed people truth…harder to feed them confidence)

          • In utilising others apparent flaws I think there’s still this question about care & consequences. Perhaps all we’re talking about is feedback or challenge from a “peculiar” viewpoint or character? Perhaps this paves the way for others to take action? Starting to feel less like can arrogance be useful and much more like how can we create different/better thinking environments.

            • I think there is a long term organisational challenge and a short term opportunity. All in favour of better thinking environments, but also of doing the best with cards that have been dealt and situation in front of you. It is about paving the way for others, that’s a really nice way of putting it.

  2. I’m a fan of the West Wing. Great writing, top acting and casting, and very clever. For those not in the know, it’s about the West Wing of the White House and the political wranglings they are faced with on a day to day basis.

    What you’re describing here is essentially how politicians and politics work. They take the worst factor of someone, and get them to do exactly that thing in the hope it has a certain outcome which is ultimately a better world.

    I’m not sure that plays out organisationally – though I’m open to the concept of it.

    • I’m starting The West Wing next week. I might be political or I might be pragmatic. Or I might be impractically political. I’ll reflect on that for when we next meet up. I think I might be sympathetic to an organisational Snape.

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