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Confident or Cocky?

How others see you.

  • “Where do you see yourself in five years?” asked the interviewer.
  • “I’ll have your job in three,” replied the millennial applicant.

This is a true story I heard from an attendee of one of my leadership seminars ("Human Connection Strategies for Busy Bosses.") Confidence is a good thing, but this wasn’t confidence. It was arrogance. Needless to say, the applicant didn’t get the job. In fact, the interview ended right there: “Thank you very much. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

How can you have confidence without being seen as cocky or arrogant? It's a balance many people struggle with, and it's a challenge because most people have an incorrect view of what confidence is. They believe that a “confidence scale” would look something like the illustration below.

Tim David
Source: Tim David

Without confidence, you’re perceived as a “doormat." But if you have too much, you’re seen as arrogant or at least overconfident. So the key is to have some confidence, but not too much.

Makes sense, right?


This is not how confidence works. If you think my little back-of-the-envelope doodle is an accurate view of confidence, you may be struggling at work more than you need to. First, get the idea of “overconfidence” out of your head right now. Overconfidence doesn’t exist; there is no such thing as too much confidence. Say this out loud until you believe it. The myth of overconfidence, and the fear of it, are the biggest killers of genuine confidence that I’ve ever seen.

Confidence and arrogance are different things altogether: They are not related to one another, and you can have one without the other. Is everyone who is confident also arrogant? Nope. Is everyone who is arrogant also confident? Not at all. Bullies are arrogant, but deep down we know they aren’t confident in themselves. That’s why they bully others in the first place.

The opposite of arrogance is not a lack of confidence. It’s deference. Here’s another quick doodle to illustrate this concept:

Tim David
Source: Tim David

The vertical line is how much confidence you have, and the horizontal line is how much deference you have. Each quadrant has a description of how others see you.

You can have as much confidence as you please, as long as you balance it with an equal amount of deference. Without deference, you’re arrogant (whether or not you have any genuine confidence).

As psychologists Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer write:

“Confidence and deference are not mutually exclusive, and it’s usually a lack of deference rather than excess of confidence that gets powerful people into trouble.”

Donald Trump, for example, is confident, but not deferential. Lincoln was both.

Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock
Source: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

The way to build deference is through perspective-taking. Seeing from another person's point of view is essential. Had that job applicant thought about the situation he was in for just a moment, he would have realized how he sounded to the interviewer in the moment: “Have my job in three years? Hey, it took me 20 to get here and I’m not giving it up to some snot-nosed kid who thinks he’s king.”

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