“Al is always late to our meetings,” Sandra shared in frustration, “and when he finally arrives he interrupts with his commentary. And, when someone disagrees with his comments he aggressively fights to prove why he’s right and that he’s better than us.” Then she said, “he’s so cocky, he drives me mad!”
Confidence is definitely a must-have leadership quality – you need it to stop into the comfort zone, make difficult or non-obvious decisions, and connect with people as you guide them through uncertainty. Confidence is part and parcel of gaining followership. But being cocky and dismissive isn’t confidence, and it dissolves followership.
“Well,” you may say, “isn’t cockiness just high level confidence?” Nope. Let’s break it down by making a distinction between self-confidence and self-esteem. Self-confidence rises and falls with circumstances; it’s situational. When my boss, for example, promoted me, my confidence swelled. Unfortunately my confidence shrunk within a month as it became really clear that I wasn’t fully prepared and experienced for my new responsibilities. Self-esteem grows over time and strengthens when we successfully overcome challenges and take in developmental feedback and love; it’s cumulative.
We can visualize the difference by imagining that your psyche is a tree trunk made up of core wood and outer bark. Self-esteem is the hard woody core of the tree trunk. In dry years the core only grows a bit, and on rainy years the core grows by a thick ring. Self-confidence is the outer layer, the bark of the tree. The outer layer is affected by environment and circumstances – sun, wind, birds, and love-struck teenagers with pocketknives.
Self-confidence waxes and wanes in reaction to life circumstances of work, relationships, and finances; new job, and I’m feeling great, get fired and I’m questioning myself. Self-esteem changes over time and and is built by achievement and positive feedback. Cocky people are, more often than not, using cockiness to mask their weak self-esteem.
Building self-esteem is key, but it doesn’t grow with praise alone. Self-esteem is built on achievement through trial and effort; giving honor without effort doesn’t work. Nathaniel Branden, writes in The Psychology of Self-Esteem, “Self-esteem has two interrelated aspects: it entails a sense of personal efficacy and a sense of personal worth. It is the conviction that one is competent to live and worthy of living.” Self-esteem increases as we grow in competence which, and competence grows from practice, purpose, grit, and feedback. Cockiness isn’t self-esteem, it’s a protective behavior used to hide insecurity and fear.
Here are four dimensions of behavior that highlight the difference between a self-confident and cocky person:
Self Confident person…
|has the personal strength to share work, share praise, and give up some control for the greater good.
|takes a “my way or the highway” approach in order to maintain their façade of strength and control.
|listens attentively; paraphrases, asks open ended questions, and clarifies for understanding.
|listens only for material that interest them; returning the focus to them, interjecting, and matching ideas and content.
|is willing to take responsibility for their life and actions.
|seeks to blame other and situations for their failures of mistakes.
|accepts that they aren’t the center of the universe.
|insists that they are the center of the universe.
Lastly, here are a few tips on how to work with a cocky and aggressive person. When someone is lacking humility and masking their weakness, rather than being threatened or annoyed, see if you can help them cultivate a real sense of self-confidence and consider these ideas:
- Keep your distance: this is an obvious one, but not always easy to implement with a co-worker or boss.
- Set boundaries: you have every right to determine what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable to you. Declare your boundaries and stick to them.
- Practice mindfulness: Notice. Pay attention to the details of what they’re doing. Observe and evaluate them from a mental distance rather than getting caught up in the story.
- Be brief: You may have to counter their position or even protect yourself and your boundaries. In that case be succinct and to the point, given they are probably poor listeners and apt to turn your words against you.
- Find your funny bone: A sense of humor is a powerful coping mechanism. No, don’t make fun of them in public, rather, put a lens of humor over your eyes and see how it affects your reaction to their antics; you won’t get as bought in as usual.