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Note This question takes place in the workplace, but I think (for reasons outlined below) that it is a better fit here than workplace.stackexchange. I'll happily close and move though if that seems like the thing to do.

Background

I recently hired someone who has a problem with arrogance. I was pretty sure that was going to be the case when I hired him, but it is hard to find talented people so I hired him anyway. All things considered though, his arrogance is not as bad as I thought it could be. It gets irritating, and causes minor problems occasionally (mainly for me since I am both the person he works closest with and he’s my direct report) but it isn't at the level where he is at risk of losing his job over it.

Not too long after I hired him I remember telling the owner of the company "He's a smart guy - the only question is whether he's smart enough to realize he's not the only smart person here". The answer to that seems to be no - he's not quite smart enough to realize he's surrounded by other smart people. It sometimes seems that he treats the workplace as a contest to be the smartest person in the room, and I would obviously prefer less competition with those of us who see him every day and more focus on the job around us. Just because, here are two examples of recent interactions that stick out:

Examples

Example 1

I had asked him twice about implementing feature X on the front-end. His answer each time was "First you'll have to implement Y on the back-end" (I do both front-and back-end work). I knew this wasn't true but this was never a high priority, so let it drop. Finally it became a high priority so I brought it up again.

Me: "It's time to implement X on the front-end"

Him: "You'll have to implement Y on the back-end"

Me: "We've talked about this before, nothing has to change on the back-end. I can send you examples."

Him: "Then please do because everything I've read says you have to make changes on the server"

Me: (a few seconds of googling): "Here's a link to stack overflow that shows how you do it on the front-end and here's an example in our code base where I'm already doing it on the front-end"

Him: "Oh, then you must have already done Y on the back-end"

Example 2:

In a meeting with the entire team he threw out some technical jargon and then paused and said "Although I'm probably the only one in this room who knows what that means.". I was insulted enough for the whole team to jump in and went ahead and defined it for him, to which he responded: "I'm surprised you knew what that means"

My goals

I don't expect to just "confront" him and see a different person the next day. He's not fresh out of college (about 30) and has probably been like this a long time. Therefore, I don't expect to see large changes quickly. However I would like to figure out how to touch on his behavior, if at all possible in a largely non-confrontational way. Partly because I'm not very good at being confrontational and partly because (as above) I don't expect to be able to sit down and "talk to him" and have any result other than being ignored. However, those are just my expectations, and I'm happy to hear answers that take a different tact. In essence: What are ways to help someone see life is not a contest to be the smartest person in the room?

--Update--

I have to give credit where credit is due. He brought up my example #1 in front of the entire team today and said that he had looked into it and was mistaken. He corrected himself in front of the entire team. I told him not to worry about it because I make mistakes like that all the time too (really, who doesn't) and then we moved on. Being able to admit that he's wrong is certainly a point in his favor.

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    Have you tried asking the owner to have a word and just say look its not competition and you have to do what X and Y tell you to do? – Twyxz Jul 30 '18 at 13:13
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    @Twyxz If it is going to be dealt with, I would like to deal with it myself. The owner is very happy to help deal with any and all employee issues and has in the past. I've appreciated that because I'm not as good or experienced at it. However, I'd like to change that and get better at dealing with interpersonal issues. I.e. I would like to fulfill all aspects of the team lead role I am in. – conman Jul 30 '18 at 13:26
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As a "recovered arrogant person," I may be able to weigh in with a bit of experience. It's in my nature to be a hopeless prima donna, and I am happy to say that I have learned -- for the most part, now that I am old and wise -- to confine that tendency to places like karaoke bars and games. Here's my take on it.

Arrogance comes from a fear of vulnerability, and being in denial about it. A person who is in denial about his fear of vulnerability tends to project and interact with his reality as if he were invulnerable, while everyone else pretty much sees him as he is. Without understanding that the person is motivated out of fear, and the compassion and sympathy that comes with that understanding, other people tend to feel attacked by his defensive measures.

People who are afraid of being hurt by other people tend to first see intrinsic value in something that they perceive themselves to "have more of" or "be better at" than other people, and then make sure that nobody can threaten their dominance in that area. Arrogant wealthy people have better stuff than other wealthy people. Arrogant athletes would never lose a contest if not for bad referees, minor injuries, bad weather or whatever. Arrogant chess players would win every game, if not for mistakes caused by the terrible playing conditions. Arrogant smart people are smarter than other people. And arrogant software developers (like me) are never wrong in their area of expertise, and make sure they prove it at every opportunity -- and they'll invent opportunities if they have to.

I believe that you're dealing with this sort of person, and it's important to understand that he's motivated by fear and insecurity. Furthermore -- and this is a tough one for anybody -- it's important to understand that if you feel anger at instead of compassion for that fear and insecurity, you need to ask yourself what fears and insecurities of your own are motivating that anger, and see what you can do to put them aside.

In your discussions with this individual, you've got to try to reach him at an emotional level, even though he isn't at all comfortable sharing his feelings. (Who wants to admit that they're insecure, when they're in denial about it?) Rather than pulling him in to talk about the problem specifically, you might try injecting some things into your everyday conversations with him that will get him to think about his positions, and in so doing perhaps think about himself as well. Do what you can to be a "relentless seeker of truth" rather than a corrector of his bad behavior.

For example, in your first example, you might ask him why he thinks that Y has to be done before X. He says he read that, so ask him to show you what he read, so you can read it too. If he can produce that, then you can also demonstrate to him that you've done X before Y, and ask him why your practical evidence seems to contradict what he has read in the book. If he's at all like me, he will eventually admit that he was wrong (if he can't show you why you are), adopt the new opinion as if he had never held the old one, and continue on as before! But, he'll remember that you helped him learn something, and he's likely to become more open to learning more from you. Your compassion motivates him to trust you.

In your second example, I would simply ask him, in front of everyone, why he felt that way, and listen to what he has to say. He'll probably embarrass himself, but that will help him learn, too. You might then have a word with him in private and ask him why he seems to be underestimating the capabilities of his co-workers.

You don't need to feel insulted for anyone on your team; that's just your own defensiveness, really. Feeling insulted gives him a false sense of power: "sorry if you feel insulted by the truth, but I can't help it if nobody else can keep up" sort of thing. The best way to deal with his illusions is to recognize them as illusions. (And you can tell the rest of the team the same thing, when they get offended.)

Keep sticking up for him when other people get mad at him. If someone comes in to complain about his behavior, mention that he's motivated by a fear of being wrong, mention that we all have the same fear, and some of us deal with it in ways that are less public than others. Ask why his behavior matters. Try to get that person to have compassion as well. Of course, if there's a substantive problem where Mr. Arrogant is making a work-related decision that is negatively impacting Mr./Ms. Complainant's quality of work, then you'll have to get directly involved and tell Mr. Arrogant that he's going to have to do whatever it is "this way" instead of "his way."

Now, at some point it's likely that his arrogance will directly and negatively impact the quality of his work. It's hard to solve problems when you think you already have all the answers! When he makes some sort of mistake that a more collaborative approach would probably have avoided, that's when it's time to correct him.

Pull him in for a chat. First, demonstrate his error, in a way that establishes it as incontrovertible fact. (Make sure you can do this!) Then, work to get him to see that his attitude is impacting his problem solving skills. Then, if you can, show him that he could do a better job if he understood the strengths of the other members of his team, and sought out their help when he needed it. Everyone has a contribution to make, and everyone on the team is better than him at something. (It would help to tell him what you think he's the best at, too, if you bring this up.) Finally, talk about his real strengths and why you value him, as well as his real weaknesses and what you think he needs to do to increase his value to the organization. Then, just bluntly tell him that his insecurities are holding him down, and keeping him from being the contributor that he really wants to be and that you know he can be. Offer to help him in any way you can.

If he doesn't respond to that, then you have to weigh his impact on the rest of your team against the quality of his work, and decide whether or not to cut him loose. I hope it doesn't come to that, and good luck.

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    Very good answer! Your approach starts at the moment when mr Arrogant makes a mistake. I'd like to ask you, what if the arrogant person is actually much above average and can't be proven wrong (at least not in a short time)? – LinuxBlanket Jul 30 '18 at 18:29
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    @LinuxBlanket I would suggest patience. Sometimes "enough rope to hang oneself" is a pretty long rope! People who are more interested in proving that they're the sharpest tool in the box than in collaborating will eventually provide an opportunity to show them the value of collaboration. Meanwhile, when people get mad at the person, you can say it's hard to argue with a person who's right. And at some point, you can pull him aside and ask him to be kinder to those less gifted than himself, because if nobody wants to work with him he's going to have to start doing their work himself. :) – BobRodes Jul 30 '18 at 18:46
  • on top of @LinuxBlanket comment, it seems that, because you were like that, you explain/justify this behavior for all arrogant people. motivated by fear and insecurity you say? I pretty much, as many people I've known, feel the fear of making bad decisions, being misunderstood, acting bad and so on... Does it give me the "right" to be arrogant? In a business environment, do you have time to wait for the person to understand and improve, or do you have to nip it in the bud? – OldPadawan Jul 31 '18 at 7:30
  • @OldPadawan "Justifying" I consider to be a fantasy in which I don't participate. (Except when I do, and then I stop when I realize it. I don't think I've done it here.) Q1: it certainly isn't motivated by love, which in my world means that it is motivated by fear. Q2 I don't believe I'm able to make objective judgments of right and wrong, and subjective ones are inherently inaccurate. Q3: Yes, you certainly have to do one or the other. Finally, I will refer you to the last sentence of the first paragraph, and cheerfully invite you to disagree with anything that I have said without argument. – BobRodes Jul 31 '18 at 18:45
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The points are:

  • you hired him.
  • you're the leader.
  • your boss knows about his attitude and supports you.
  • coworker is arrogant / "too smart - smarter than everyone one else".

In a case like this, I would definately not try and do something that's not professional. Acting like a professional, in a professional environment, with professional settings.

In that situation I've always treated people in a very neutral way. It's really important that you don't argue with them, especially publicly, and, also, "don't feed the troll".

“Let people know what your decisions are, never your reasons. The former may be good, the latter will most certainly be bad.” Margaret Murray 1

This is not kindergarden. This is business. As a manager, you don't have to explain everything and justify every decision. You buy some time from talented persons to perform a job. Give them duties, schedule, tools, a nice and professional environment, help them if/when needed, but don't argue.

In a meeting, I would assign duties and ask for clarification and questions. One at a time. Make sure his name is in the middle of the list. Never first, never last. If he interrupts you, be nice, but be firm. Remind him that you must follow the planning. If he has too many questions or start to argue, cut short, don't let him bother the team. You act like a leader and protect your guys.

Tell him you'll be glad to answer his other questions later, at your desk, or by mail. You don't have to prove that your team has talented people, or that you're smarter than him. You're the leader. Be wise, be nice, but be firm. Show strength. If needed, remind him 1-on-1 in your office.

Nothing personal, it's just business. It has rules, he needs to learn them, respect them, and follow them. Here, the IP skills needed are nothing more than calm and patience. The following quote can be read as "hit the guy", but it's not, it's just to show how determined you are to make your point in a professional manner, without arguing.

Anytime he starts fooling around or tricking your system, go back to point #1. You say, you cut short, you expect results. You don't hold the door to arguments open to him.

“If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time with a tremendous whack.” W. Churchill


1. roughly translated, if anybody has a better quote/version, please edit, thanks.

  • I think the original quote is "Faites connaître vos décisions, jamais vos raisons. Vos décisions peuvent être bonnes, vos raisons seront certainement mauvaises.” - might be a good question for French Language non? – alien Jul 30 '18 at 20:09
  • @alien : possibly but I thought Churchill had said it, when I double-checked, I found only in French, and credited to her, that seems weird for a woman who was English speaking (-> my warning). I don't know if FL.SE can help... – OldPadawan Jul 30 '18 at 20:13
  • @alien : I checked FAQ + meta on FL.SE and it seems off-topic, as they don't translate, either way. – OldPadawan Jul 31 '18 at 7:54
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    @OldPadawan I'm a French native, and honestly this is about as well translated as it can be :) don't worry about it (they just don't use "former" and "latter", they reuse decision and reason, and the French is more unequivocal. It's not "mostly certainly bad", but direct "certainly bad". But the message is the same) – Patrice Jul 31 '18 at 15:21
  • @DavidSchwartz : I'm talking about the bad guy only :) of course, not the team. Listen to them, and protect them. Don't let him disturb and annoy everybody; he seems to be confrontational and arguing all the time, as "Mr SmartGuyKnowsItAll". And that's annoying in a team (I've been one of the nice guys in such a team, we were all fed up with this attitude!). Management has to take care of this before it escalates and turn much bitter. – OldPadawan Jul 31 '18 at 17:11
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First of all - the main problem with such arrogant person is that they may not want to learn. Be it learning new things needed for work or how to act around other people.

There is saying: "If you feel the smartest person in the room, leave the room". If somebody look for place where they are the smartest, for me, it means they looking for a praise, not work.

In your example 1 could you ask him to check if Y is implemented? How to check it? Implement X. If it's not working they he can get back to you that it's not possible. BUT he need to do that.
Force him to answer to you with results rather than assumptions. Make him to challenge himself, that way you will avoid conflict. You will save time and nerves not making those petty emails and won't be the bad guy.

As for the second example. I've had exactly the same situation with exactly the same outcome "I'm surprised you knew what that means". My response was "Don't assume you're the only one who read a book that sold in millions of copies". The situation was recurring so I started betting with him using Fibonacci number. Around fifth bet he lost he started to get the fact that he may not be always right. When he said something and I started to take out my wallet he knew he should fall back and say "I will check that and be back".

  • How does betting with Fibonacci numbers work? – Erik Jul 31 '18 at 5:18
  • You bet with increasing amount. So if you start with 5$ next one is 8 then 13 and so on. After second bet people explain to themselves that they can win and get even for past losses. – SZCZERZO KŁY Jul 31 '18 at 6:14

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