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The subtle, but important, difference between confidence and arrogance

July 22, 2022 - 9 min read

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Confidence and arrogance defined

The upsides of confidence

The downsides of arrogance

Striking the balance between confidence and arrogance

When you think of confidence, what comes to mind? What about arrogance?

The visual — and even behavioral — distinction between confidence and arrogance is hard to pinpoint. When you try to imagine it, you likely think of a person that embodies each of these traits. That’s because outwardly, the behaviors of a confident person and an arrogant one often look the same. Both individuals will have no problem speaking up for themselves. They may seem like they’ve got everything figured out, and have no problem with owning their strengths.

But while the difference between confidence and arrogance is subtle, it’s palpable. We may not be able to describe what it looks like, but we can certainly point to the negative effects of arrogance — both in and out of the workplace.

Confidence and arrogance defined

It’s helpful to think of confidence and arrogance as existing along the same spectrum, instead of mutually exclusive concepts. 

On one end, we have arrogance, when a person believes that they are better than everyone else around them. They have an exaggerated sense of their own importance. 

Now, that’s not to say that they’re not important. Many arrogant leaders are, in fact, critical to the success of their organizations, and have the skills to back it up. Along with arrogance, though, comes the need to be at the center of everything — a behavior akin to micromanaging. These people have attitude of superiority that — paradoxically — keeps them stuck.

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On the other, far end of the spectrum is self-deprecation. Self-deprecating behavior downplays our abilities, skills, and accomplishments. We often use casual self-put-downs as a way of managing another person’s impressions of us. If we’re worried about coming off as cocky, conceited, or arrogant, we often downplay our positive qualities.

In the middle of that spectrum is confidence, the belief in oneself and one's abilities. People with healthy self-confidence have a positive self-image and assertiveness. They have a strong sense of both their strengths and areas for improvement. But instead of letting these perceived weaknesses foment insecurity, they reach out for support. 

Confident leaders inspire trust in their team members and can receive constructive feedback without getting defensive. Their self-awareness as leaders actually gives them a sense of inner calm.

Both confidence and arrogance are related to self-esteem, or the way that a person feels about themselves. Confidence comes from a high intrinsic value, understanding that self-worth isn’t measured by achievements, failures, or the opinions of others. Arrogance comes from a sense of superiority over others. Unfortunately, the only way to maintain that status is to keep others in their (so-called) place.

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The upsides of confidence

Because confident people aren’t staking their sense of self on outcomes, they’re more likely to collaborate, celebrate the achievements of others, ask for help, take calculated risks, and pursue opportunities for growth.

Confident individuals are seen as both capable and likable. Their self-assurance can have positive effects on those around them, making an entire team feel empowered. Confident people tend to have higher self-efficacy, better decision-making skills, and are more creative problem solvers.

The downsides of arrogance

At work or other professional environments, arrogance can quickly turn off your co-workers. People don't want to work with someone who thinks they are better than everyone else. And it’s not because they’re intimidated by your skills. It makes you far less approachable, and may even flag you as a potential liability.

If you feel invested in maintaining a perfect persona, you’ll receive fewer opportunities for mentorship and growth. In individual relationships, people will be less likely to confide in you. After all, even if you successfully present yourself as having it all together, few others do. People want to be seen, not judged.

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Striking the balance between confidence and arrogance

People are funny. When we feel insecure, we tend to compensate with overconfidence. But when we’re worried about seeming too confident, we go to the other extreme and put ourselves down.

How do you walk this social (and emotional) tightrope? It takes a high degree of self-awareness (and a good amount of support from others). Here are 3 ways to find the balance between confidence and arrogance.

1. Own your feedback

Confidence is believing in yourself and your own abilities without needing validation from others. It’s having faith in your judgment and being secure in who you are. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that you completely disregard the opinions of others. You can learn from their feedback, even if you don’t agree with it.

We all have an innate need to be validated by others, so it can sometimes feel triggering when people point out the areas we need to work on. But being able to take feedback  like a pro is a key marker of a confident person. Remember: If you want to build true confidence, learn how to identify where you need improvement — then do the work necessary to become more competent at those things. 

2. Own your achievements

Those of us on the self-deprecating end of the spectrum are often afraid of coming off as arrogant people. It’s a fair concern — but if you have trouble owning your achievements, you might be doing even more damage. In its extreme, self-deprecation can be a form of self-sabotage.

The fine line between confidence and arrogance likely isn’t as fine as you’re worried it is. You can — and should — have awareness and appreciation of your strengths. That’s not cockiness. It’s the natural, other side of the coin when you have an appreciation of your flaws. Having strong self-esteem doesn’t mean thinking we’re perfect — and it’s certainly not all-or-nothing.

If you have some work to do in this area, practice talking about your strengths. Attend networking events or mock interviews where you can share your greatest hits with others (and get feedback, too). Working with a coach is especially helpful for learning to see yourself with accuracy.

3. Own your support system

Pick any book on success, leadership, or growth. I’ll bet they all — every last one — have something in common: the acknowledgments section in the back.

Successful, confident people don’t try to do everything themselves. They build a support system. That means they find people they can trust, and empower them to take key parts of projects and initiatives. Building a team means being honest with yourself about what you do (and don’t) do well. But it also means being able to go much further than you would alone.

Final thoughts

True self-confidence is not arrogance. It's a quiet assurance that you can handle whatever comes your way. It comes from self-awareness and knowing that your intrinsic value isn’t based on your external circumstances. 

You don't need to put others down to feel good about yourself. To build self-confidence, start by accepting yourself just as you are. Then, work on building your skills and knowledge so you can feel competent in what you do. Finally, surround yourself with supportive people who will help you to believe in yourself. The ability to trust yourself and empower others is one of the key differences between confidence and arrogance.

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Published July 22, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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