Organizational Behavior: When Arrogance Is Bliss

The current economic downturn isn’t much fun, but there is a silver lining: Arrogance is now viewed as among the greatest sins in corporate life. Executives with massive egos are now held in disrepute, and the hubris that pervaded so many companies during the boom is blamed for provoking and prolonging our current economic troubles. These beliefs about the dangers of swaggering corporate superstars are also bolstered by two much talked-about books: Jim Collins’ Good to Great and Rakesh Kuhrana’s splendid Searching for a Corporate Savior.

I can’t stand people with “overbearing pride,” and you probably can’t, either. But the pendulum has swung too far. The old Chinese proverb, “Arrogance invites ruin; humility receives benefits,” is appealing but is a half-truth. It holds for CEOs of big companies and many other executives, including some CIOs, but not for everyone.

True, arrogant executives tend to overestimate how smart they are, so they often do a bad job of weighing competing demands and frequently take unreasonable risks. They also tend to be ill-suited for keeping diverse constituencies happy: Inflated self-assessments mean they assume that everyone admires them and that their detractors can be easily defeated or persuaded to join their side. And they don’t realize how much their pompous attitudes annoy everyone. Yet this same stubborn pride makes arrogant people well-suited for turning new ideas into reality, especially risky and unpopular ones.

Now, it’s true that modest people can also be effective managers, innovators and organizational change agents, especially when they have plenty of power and resources. A.G. Lafley, the soft-spoken CEO of Procter & Gamble, is a good example. P&G’s existing brands had been losing market share, and analysts were critical of the company’s innovation slump. Lafley is a stark contrast to his flamboyant predecessor, Durk Jager, who was eventually ousted by the company’s directors. Lafley has gently but relentlessly pressed people at P&G to once again try to expand the market for tried-and-true brands like Tide and Joy, while simultaneously pressing them to introduce new products like Crest Whitestrips. The company is now flourishing despite the current downturn.

But suffer arrogance we should, at times. The “self-enhancing illusions” that arrogant people have, their absurd optimism about what they can accomplish and their tendency to take extreme risks can speed and fuel the success of new and risky ideas. The trick, though, is learning how to manage arrogance—and keep it from disrupting productivity too badly.

First, don’t expect arrogant people to change their ways. The famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright bragged, “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.” Second, don’t expect arrogant people to heed their critics. In The Double Helix, James Watson’s book on how he and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, Watson shows that, although his and Crick’s supreme self-confidence annoyed others, it helped them ignore critics and press forward during bad times. Third, know that the “overbearing pride” seen in many teams and companies can lead them to persist when more modest ones would admit defeat.

Consider what Steve Jobs did at Apple Computer in the late 1990s or what Donna Dubinsky and Jeff Hawkins did in the handheld computing industry in the mid-1990s. Just about every so-called expert pronounced Apple dead before Jobs returned to the company, and after numerous Palm-based computer companies like Go and Slate failed, financial analysts pronounced that fledgling industry dead as well. Without Jobs’ disregard for naysayers, Apple would not have survived. And although Dubinsky and Hawkins are more modest than Jobs, without their disregard for the 100 percent failure rate of Palm-based companies and products, the modern handheld computing industry might have been born years later, if at all.

Are you considering whether to bring in some overconfident egomaniacs? There are ways to reduce the emotional wreckage and enhance their odds of success. First, it is probably best to isolate arrogant people from everyone else. Arrogant people can undermine teamwork, spark anger and stoke dysfunctional competition. Many companies already use isolation: Famous examples include the Lockheed “skunk works” that designed the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes, and the team that developed the first Apple Macintosh computer.

This same technique can also be applied to individuals. I once consulted to a group that, after failing to reason with a skilled but arrogant and mean-spirited engineer, solved their problem by giving him the only closed office in the building. They also didn’t invite him to most meetings. Instead, they occasionally visited “the bear in his cave” to see what he was doing and have him review their work.

Second, arrogant and modest people may not like each other, but they need each other. Examples include U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and the Beatles’s John Lennon. All displayed “overbearing pride” yet worked with modest and socially adept people who protected them from people they might enrage and cooled out upset people left in their wake. John Lennon, late in his life, acknowledged that Paul McCartney and manager Brian Epstein “did a lot to cover up for me. They did a good job containing my personality from causing too much trouble.”

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