Initiative, intelligence, confidence and dedication are qualities most employers look for in top employees and executives. But for Mark Newman, none of that matters without the one trait he values most — humility.
Newman, who comes from humble beginnings growing up in the hinterlands of northern Canada, where his father worked for a mining company, has given more than one talented but arrogant executive the boot.
“Yeah, great — you’ve achieved your goals, but there’s a bunch of dead bodies behind you,” said Newman, whose company, HireVue Inc., offers a digital recruiting platform to help employers interview far-flung candidates. “You don’t care about those employees, about who they are, what their potential is. They are just a means to an end. That goes against what we are about.”
From Silicon Valley’s tech titans to Wall Street’s wolves and Hollywood’s studio honchos, arrogance in successful business leaders is often tolerated and, in some instances, celebrated. The late Steve Jobs was notoriously described as an arrogant leader, as are many decisive, hardened and cutthroat personas from Wall Street to e-commerce to the sidelines of sports.
But, more often than not, having an overinflated opinion of oneself is not good for business, according to psychologists and leadership experts.
“There is research that suggests that narcissists can have some positive effects on career outcomes,” said Michael Johnson, a business professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who studies collaboration in organizations. “After all, narcissism in CEOs is pretty prevalent, but it’s not a benefit in terms of overall performance.”
A Look in the Mirror
Despite the success of arrogant executives, there’s a business case to be made for more modest leadership attributes, according to a 2012 study co-authored by Johnson. It found that humble employees make better leaders in part because they foster learning, which helps with employee retention and job satisfaction.
And although some in business may view humility as a weakness, recent research suggests it is a strength savvy talent managers look for.
Definitions of humility range from modesty to meekness, but Johnson said the quality ultimately boils down to three characteristics: the ability to learn from others, knowing your strengths and shortcomings, and appreciating the contributions of others.
Encouraging humility seems to be working for HireVue, where one of the company’s guiding principles is “Earn trust — titles don’t matter. Leaders listen to others, consider other opinions inconsistent with their own and have the courage to change their positions when evidence demands,” Newman said.
Since 2009, Newman said the company has experienced dramatic growth, going from 30 employees to more than 200 today. The company has also seen its revenue spike to about $10 million this year, Newman said.
Building humility in leaders also seems to be working for Google Inc. Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at the Silicon Valley giant, triggered some buzz recently when he was quoted in a New York Times column saying humility is one of the leading attributes he looks for in a candidate, while expertise is the least important factor. The other qualities that aspiring “Googlers” must possess, he said, are cognitive ability, emergent leadership skills and a sense of ownership.
In fact, valuing humility over expertise might not be as strange as it sounds, according to organizational psychologist Stanley Silverman. He said that on top of being jerks, arrogant leaders aren’t as smart as their more modest colleagues. In his research as a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, Silverman found that “the higher the arrogance, the lower the cognitive ability.” Arrogant people, he said, tend to also have lower self-esteem, and therefore cover it up by demeaning others to prove their competence.
While it may be hard to assess character traits like humility or arrogance, Silverman and several colleagues have developed a tool to help talent managers do just that. It’s called the Workplace Arrogance Scale, or WARS (see “How Arrogant Are You?”). Launched in 2012, the scale is determined by a series of questions like “Does your boss demonstrate different behaviors with subordinates and supervisors?” Silverman said a “yes” answer raises a red flag. So far a handful of companies have signed up to use the scale during performance reviews.
Still, Silverman cautioned that WARS focuses on just one performance measure and therefore should not be used to weed out employees or screen candidates. “It’s not meant to be used that way,” Silverman said. “It’s about getting people to change. It’s about development, not selection.”
Even if the tool could be used to weed out arrogant employees, it wouldn’t be easy. Experts say narcissism, a more extreme form of arrogance, is on the rise. Unlike arrogance, which is fueled by putting others down, psychologists say narcissists often have unrealistic delusions of grandeur and don’t need others to feel superior.
The lure of social media and its emphasis on constant self-revelation has created high levels of self-absorption, according to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an expert on personality assessment and vice president of research and innovation at Hogan Assessment Systems.
In his recent book “Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt,” Chamorro-Premuzic cites studies that show the dramatic rise in narcissism among college students. In the 1950s, for example, 12 percent of students described themselves as “an important person,” one of the studies showed. By the 1980s, that figure had increased to 80 percent.
With so many narcissists out there, it can be hard for modest leaders to get their due, especially in cultures that reward the brash and boastful.
And culture, whether it’s of a company or a country, plays a huge role in which behavior gets rewarded, according to Chamorro-Premuzic. In the U.S., the workplace narcissist is often tolerated as long as he or she is competent, compared to in the U.K., where a more modest and self-effacing approach is valued.
“Cultures differ significantly and substantially in their ability to tolerate arrogance,” Chamorro-Premuzic said. “In most industrialized Western places, like Los Angeles, arrogance is not just tolerated but celebrated. … That isn’t the case in Korea or China, where self-improvement and humility is what’s promoted, not just in business but in school.”
Judging by recent surveys that show most employees who are disengaged from their jobs blame their managers, companies must do a better job of managing the jerks at work. The bottom line may depend on it. “There is a clear correlation between engagement and how employees rate their managers and how the company is actually doing,” Chamorro-Premuzic said. “Organizations that have systems in place for promoting on the basis of talent outperform their competitors.”
Rather than focusing on engagement and worrying about how to motivate employees, companies should be studying disengagement and focusing on those who are skilled at demotivating others, according to Sally Helgesen, an author and leadership development consultant.
“It seems that the most important thing employers can do is to try to make sure that people who demotivate others don’t get into positions of power,” she said. “People are profoundly humiliated by bosses who are arrogant.”
Companies that allow arrogance to flourish need to examine what in their culture supports and encourages that kind of behavior, Helgesen said. “That’s a bigger and more subtle and persistent issue than whether or not this person is an arrogant creep,” she said. “People let that side of their nature come forward when the culture allows it. It’s not that the company hires a bunch of jerks; it’s that there’s something there that allows that behavior to emerge.”
Most of the time, the problem comes from the top. “When you have an arrogant person running a unit or company you develop a dishonest organization because people are afraid to tell the truth,” Helgesen said. “If you’re being honest about your shortcomings you automatically build in some transparency in an organization.”
And yet, some of our most admired leaders, from business tycoons to sports figures, have been called arrogant and narcissistic. Jobs’ success inspired many, but he is also known for demoralizing many with his brash communication style. And the world of professional sports abounds with examples of arrogant players who are also admired, said Russell Johnson, a professor at Michigan State University who helped develop the workplace arrogance scale.
He said people often make allowance for arrogance when it comes to talent or ability, like in the case of former San Francisco Giants slugger and Major League Baseball all-time home run leader Barry Bonds.
“Barry Bonds was known for being arrogant, but he was also known for knocking out those home runs,” Johnson said.
When it comes to the workplace, a little swagger can give the appearance of confidence and get someone noticed, but it can backfire once that person becomes a leader, according to Johnson.
“If you want to motivate people, you need to give them a sense of control. But people who are narcissistic are very hands-on and can be controlling,” he said. “That hurts the autonomy and performance of those around them.”
Indeed, there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance, according to Silverman.
“You want your leaders to be self-confident, but once they cross that boundary from self-confidence to arrogance, you have a different perspective,” Silverman said. “You don’t want them to get ahead, you no longer respect them and you start to see them as incompetent.”
Still, HireVue’s Newman said smarts and talent can take you only so far without the ability to admit your mistakes and take responsibility for them.
“In business, having the humility to go to a customer and say, ‘You know what? We screwed up. We didn’t deliver and we want to make it right,” he said. “That’s humility and that is so incredibly important.”
The line between confidence and arrogance can be razor-thin. But for Newman, the best leaders are devoid of the latter but have an abundance of confidence and humility.
“I think confidence can become arrogance when there is a lack of authenticity in a person,” he said. “When someone comes off full of themselves, it’s when they lack authenticity or are unable to connect with someone. I don’t think arrogance gets you very far. I think confidence does. Arrogance doesn’t create a following behind you. But if someone is incredibly confident, others will follow.”
How Arrogant Are You?
Organizational psychologist Stanley Silverman has developed an assessment tool called “The Workplace Arrogance Scale,” or WARS, that he says can quantify how arrogant someone is.
It allows people to rank their colleagues on a variety of measures using a five-point scale, with 1 being “strongly disagree” and 5 being “strongly agree.” The scale is designed to be used in performance evaluations.
Here are 11 of the 26 measures used in WARS.
1. Believes that she/he knows better than everyone else in any given situation.
2. Makes decisions that affect others without listening to their input.
3. Uses nonverbal behaviors like glaring or staring to make people uncomfortable.
4. Criticizes others.
5. Belittles his/her employees publicly.
6. Asserts authority in situations when she/he does not have the required information.
7. Discredits others’ ideas during meetings and often makes those individuals look bad.
8. Shoots down other people’s ideas in public.
9. Exhibits different behaviors with subordinates than with supervisors.
10. Makes unrealistic time demands on others.
11. Does not find it necessary to explain his/her decisions to others.
To score, add the total and divide by the number of questions to find the average. Those with an average score higher than 3 and those who rated themselves “significantly lower than their colleagues” are given a performance development plan, Silverman said.