Being Confident at Work vs. Being Arrogant

Confidence, Arrogance: How to Tell the Difference | CorporetteWhat’s the difference between confidence and arrogance, especially at work, especially for women? How can you tell if you’ve crossed that line at work? Reader A wonders…

I’ve got a sensitive subject that I haven’t seen discussed about discipline at work. I was recently hired at a law office where I’ve summered the last two summers doing litigation.

At work I was called into the hiring managers office and told the following. Hiring Manager is one of my biggest supporters. He thinks my career can take me far beyond where most people go in their careers into the top division. However, a couple of my evaluations from supervisors from the summer thought I sometimes acted arrogant. He said he didn’t think I was arrogant but that some things I said at my interview danced the line between confident and arrogant and raised red flags. He said he only brought it up because he didn’t want to not say something in case it became an issue in the future.

Any insight on responding beyond thanking him for telling me and thanking him for supporting me?

Interesting question, reader A. We’ve talked about how to be professional without looking like you think you’re in charge, as well as stressed the importance of being humble and grateful when you’re networking with older people — but we haven’t talked about what to do when you’re told you’re arrogant. (On the flip side, we’ve talked about how to take a compliment, as well as a lot about a lack of confidence; we had a discussion about the book The Confidence Code and we’ve shared posts on facing fear and low self-esteem, imposter syndrome, and doing work you feel unprepared for.) I have a few thoughts, but I’m curious what readers will say.

  • This might be a gender treatment issue — i.e., a man could do the same things you’re doing, but you get called “arrogant” because you’re a woman. The Pantene ad comes to mind, as do some of the recent issues raised by the Ellen Pao trial (see this Slate article, for example) or some discussions about arrogance and deference at the New York Fed (see The Baffler article). When you’re the low person on the totem pole, and early in your career and this particular job, though, I suggest you act like it isn’t a gender treatment issue. Don’t get caught up too much in whether it’s fair or it isn’t, because there isn’t too much, at this stage, that you can do beyond getting a new job.
  • Ask for more information from your Hiring Manager. What particular actions or attitudes are causing people to think you’re arrogant? What specific situations can he give you?
  • Look for the kernel of truth, and modify your behavior accordingly. Here’s the important thing: looking at those situations and those actions, does any of it ring “arrogant” to you? If you agree you’ve crossed the line from confidence into arrogance, modify your actions. Do you interrupt people? Do you give lengthy thoughts in situations where, as the junior person in the room, you should be brief or silent? (Particularly in meetings with clients, or with several high billers so it’s an “expensive” meeting.) Do you consider some work to be “beneath you”? I remember once while assigning a bunch of document review to a group of first years, one of the guys said something like, “Uh, ok, I’m really more of a big picture guy.” Afterwards, the senior people (of which I was one of the more junior ones) chortled, “Ha, yeah, we’ll just tell the $1000-per-hour partner to go take a break then.”
  • If you don’t agree, though, assess the personalities involved. Now that you have more information from the Hiring Manager, do you know who said these things about you? Can you figure it out (or ask your Hiring Manager directly)? Once you know who thought you were arrogant, you can decide to either hedge your behavior around him or her — or, if you can, work with other people instead.

Readers, what are your thoughts? How should a young woman react when her boss gives her feedback that she is “arrogant”?

Further reading:

  • The Secret to Being Confident (Without Being Arrogant) [The Muse]
  • 10 Ways to Tell if You’re Confident – or Arrogant [The Ladders]
  • Let’s Roar! How to Promote Yourself without Sounding Arrogant [NAPW]

(Pictured at top: Dark clouds threatening, originally uploaded to Flickr by Vincent Vandevelde.) 


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Being Confident at Work vs. Being Arrogant


  1. This may not be as applicable in a work situation, but a friend’s wife is arrogant. In addition to being a know-it-all, when hearing new information outside of her expertise from knowledgeable people, she acts as if that information is unknowable and doubts their claims.

    Also, during work meetings, some people feel the need to (1) ask questions that someone else asked, as if their version is different, when it’s not, or (2) rephrase what the speaker said to gain clarification. This behavior can be interpreted as auditory learning. A less favorable perspective is that the person likes to hear the sound of her own voice.

    • I work with a guy like in your first paragraph. Everything he says is canon. If you suggest a change that would be beneficial to the company / productivity, it’s a non-starter because his way is the only way. He constantly name-drops his old company, as if we’re supposed to be impressed (same industry, totally different scope). An added bonus is he makes sexually-insensitive remarks in a department that’s 100% women (and our company has a nonexistent HR).

  2. Sometimes it is about the way you express yourself versus the dominant culture of the company.
    In my first job, I joined a US company because I like a flatter managerial style, but neglected the fact that in my country, the overall influence is French so it would seep through despite the corporate training etc.
    I used to be very confident and outspoken (US culture), however many of the people surrounding me were very into hierarchy and reserved (French culture). I never interrupted people or talked at length but I did own up my successes and give my expert advice on issues I mastered.
    Having no inhibitions – while keeping it professional – can be threatening to someone with a different style, especially if they are more senior.
    I had this same feedback once interviewing with a European office of a US firm (consulting). The interviewer told me I have a lot of energy but I seem to not have grasped the notion of hierarchy within European institutions and this might rub senior clients or partners the wrong way. He said that internally, it wouldn’t be an issue because it is an american company but being in a European country, I might give off the wrong impression.
    Thus on top of the gender, behavior and personalities, I would add company’s dominant culture.

  3. Yay, Kat, this is a GREAT topic for us b/c women are alway’s being called brassey or arrogant when we are ONLEY trying to do our job’s and when a man does the same thing, he is “assertive”. FOOEY on doubel standard’s.

    Personaly, I have learned to be humbel when I am tryeing to make a point b/c it never pay’s to be to pushey, for this very reason. Being humbel require’s us to be a littel demure, which I kind of perfected when I lived in DC, b/c it had a kind of “Southern” feel to the city and I was onley a college girl. So I learned that if I was demure and asked in a more feminine way for thing’s, that men would be very likeley to melt and do what it was that I wanted them to do. Men are sap’s and sucker’s for pretty women, tho I NEVER gave anything sexueal to men in exchange for them doeing anything for me.

    Dad called it the Scarlet O’Hare attitude. Give men the hint that you are interested in them and they will melt at your feet, the way Rett Butler did when Scarlet let him sneek a littel peek at her boobie’s. They did NOT show exacteley what went on when he picked her up and carried her up the stair’s b/c that is left for the imageination. YAY! Scarlet let alot of men see her boobie’s but I do NOT think she let them go any further b/c she wanted to remain a virgin for her husband.

    Now I am NOT sugesting we be like her today — this is the 21st Century and women can now have control over their bodie’s, it is ALWAYS a good thing to make men squirm b/f we give them FULL access to our bodie’s. Once we rembember this, we can have it all! A rich husband who adore’s us and treat’s us right! YAY!!!!!

    • You may want to modify your spelling and grammar if you would like your thoughts to have full weight and consideration.

      • Hi are you new. We love ELLEN!!! the way she is. (At least most of us do.)

        • Wildkitten :

          Others just accept the things we cannot change.

        • S in Chicago :

          Ellen, don’t go changing a thing girl. JSFAMO.

        • Right… some of us just read right past his/her posts, which is actually easy to spot because of the ALLCAPS!!!!

      • ELLEN is primarily (and perhaps rightefully) concerned about the full weight of her TUCHUS.

  4. Our law firm had an arrogant summer associate who was spoken to about his behavior. In his case, it wasn’t a few small behaviors here and there; it was a serious enough issue that the firm debated whether to give him an offer, despite his excellent work. I suspect that’s true in general–that people won’t say something unless it’s a more than just a small issue.

    I agree with what a lot of Kat said, particularly the advice to look for the kernel of truth. You can ask for specifics if you really don’t know what they’re talking about, but I think you can also figure it out by heightening your awareness of your own behavior and other people’s reactions to you. Admittedly, there’s a fine line between being aware of your actions and working on yourself and growing hyper-aware and insecure. We all have qualities that bug other people; you can take the criticism as a bunch of bullsh*t and shrink into a self-defensive hole or you can learn and grow from it.

  5. I would add that you need be more self-aware. Period. Don’t name drop. Don’t tout that your school was fancy. Don’t brag about anything. Don’t act like a know-it-all or a been-there-done-that. Think about being humble and watching what is happening around you. Houda is onto something when she says that junior people should listen. Even if you’ve done a task before, there is learning to get out of it. Confirm what superiors want and then ask for feedback after projects–don’t act like you know how to do everything. Again, if you are a solid worker, you need to think about proving your mettle through your work, and not through your words and interactions.

    BTW, this advice would be totally different if you hadn’t been spoken to. There’s a fine line between making sure that your work is known and acting like you are an integral cog in the machine. Your mantra should be humility and silence as you take things in. Work on being vanilla.

    • Diana Barry :

      +1000. You might also ask someone more on your level (another associate? or even a friend) for SPECIFIC things you do that come across as arrogant. Are you too quick to jump in when someone is telling you something and say “yes, yes, I’ve done this before” or “of course, we always” or something similar? WAIT to speak and never use a phrase like that or a dismissive tone.

    • I’m inclined to think this is the “kernel of truth” category, since you say the person talking to you is a big supporter and this has appeared in evaluations a couple times (from a couple people? Can’t tell from context).

    • TO Lawyer :

      This is really good advice. I’ve been frustrated with articling and summer students who think they know the answer without fully understanding the full context of the case and I’ve had this experience with both male and female juniors so I’m assuming it’s not gendered. I think especially as a summer student, I would be really hesitant about vocalizing an opinion unless specifically asked and unless you’re confident in the answer. A lot of times, you’re only given a small snippet of an assignment so you can’t really understand its importance in the context of the entire brief or case.

  6. It’s basically gendered a lot of the time. An arrogant guy is eccentric, funny and a character. An arrogant woman is a problem.

    • Not true. I work with a very arrogant young associate who drives me and others flipping crazy. It’s a guy. He speaks too soon in meetings where he is by far the youngest and he acts like he knows everything when you’re giving him an assignment. There obviously can be gender bias but I don’t think always.

      • Okay, I think we can agree that (1) gender isn’t always the reason for the perception but (2) gender is often the reason for the perception.

        • I’m just saying I don’t find this guy eccentric or a character but instead very annoying.

          • Pipe dream :

            But do others around you feel the same way, especially men? And are the consequences for his behavior the same as they would be for a woman doing the same things?

          • Pipe Dream, you’re doubting a woman’s response and asking her to confirm with others around her, especially men.

          • Pipe Dream :

            I’m actually sure the guy is legitimately annoying, I was meaning to see if the double standard was still applying in her situation. Meaning, did she get backup from men in this judgment, or are they unfairly giving him a pass where they wouldn’t do so for a woman?

      • And I think it’s a risk that you will lose the value of honest feedback if you’re too quick to jump to that. I think Kat has it right.

      • Yes, I see this is more of an age/experience issue than a gender issue. (Not that gender has no role.) Remember that this is her behavior as a summer associate – haven’t even graduated yet! As a summer (and even a junior associate), you aren’t paid for your knowledge. You won’t have the knowledge for several years. You are paid for your availability and can-do attitude. So the most important thing you can do is listen – you may know how to do X assignment, but do you know how A partner likes X to be done? And how B partner also likes X to be done? You are there to learn these things.

        • Agreed. Both with Nutella and Kat. I think it wise to not jump to the conclusion of it being a gender issue. Sometimes if you feel you’re being dismissed, especially if you’re young, you should assume it’s age/experience rather than gender. In this case, Kat’s advice to look more into the specifics to see if there is something that could be misinterpreted as arrogance would serve you better than to get defensive and assume that it’s related to gender. I think with the limited amount of information you have at this point, jumping to the gender issue will not serve you well.

  7. Not for this subject :

    I have found the work of Herminia Ibarra on the subject fascinating. This one is good, but they are all interesting:

    • Not for this subject :

  8. (Former) Clueless Summer :

    You may not realize that trying to sound like you’re smart/understand the assignment often comes across as arrogant. I worked with a student this year with excellent work product but he (yes, this is not gendered) constantly tried to tell me in initial meetings that he understood the assignment, when I could tell he did not, and he often took a position on a research question or issue before he fully understood what it was we needed from his research. It came across like he thought he was smarter than I was and wanted to show it off. Perhaps he was. But he wasn’t in communication with the client and he didn’t understand their business needs in the way I did. I was often left with excellent, thorough research that did not address what I needed it to address. (Think, the law is X and this is why, when I need justification for Y, no matter how weak that is.) The review I submitted specifically mentioned his arrogance and cautioned him to listen first. His intelligence will be demonstrated in the work he does, not his attitude in the initial meeting.

    • +1. This is a frustrating conundrum, especially when you move up the ranks to mid-level or senior level. You want to convey to the person explaining the assignment that you understand and have some previous experience related to the matter, not to be arrogant but to give them comfort. It will only come across as arrogance. Just keep your mouth shut when someone asks you to do something, except to ask for a deadline and matter number.

      • I agree 100% Lake! This is something I continue to struggle with (since I am relatively new to my firm and do happen to have experience with some of the assignments I am given), and I am learning that people may assume arrogance rather than feel comfort. Deadline + matter number it is!

  9. brokentoe :

    Another aspect that has not yet been mentioned is how the OP treats those around her, specifically support staff. Some younger people see these folk as the only people below them on the totem pole and treat them accordingly to elevate themselves in their own heads. Do this at great peril. Long term staff will tune into arrogance and often have the ear of those several levels above themselves. Kind of like that old cautionary tale of how you should be nice to the receptionist at a job interview. Be nice to everybody.

    • SoCalAtty :

      This is so important. I can’t remember who gave me the advice, but it was basically, “be nice to and make friends with the admins and janitors.” I feel like it may have been my grandfather. The thing is, support staff are going to be the ones to bail you out when you are in a jam, and it will be the building engineers that will have keys to all of the actual doors you might lock yourself out of. I can’t tell you how many times being on great terms with staff and engineering has saved me!

  10. It’s hard to answer OP’s question without specific examples of the behavior that’s considered arrogant. One thing that jumped out at me was the line, “he thinks my career can take me far beyond where most people go in their careers into the top division” — maybe that’s a purposefully vague statement that I’m reading out of context but I can see how if you’re a new person in the office speaking in this manner could rub some people the wrong way.

    I think the advice to ask for concrete examples to evaluate the issue is spot on; I would also ask the hiring manager if he has any specific advice. Maybe it’s a few very specific things that are easy to fix. I work with a recent grad attorney who comes off as a bit arrogant and rubs a lot of people the wrong way. If he asked me, I’d tell him that it’s because he says things like, “when I was at the DOJ …” implying that he worked there and didn’t just graduate a year ago when he just had a semester-long part time internship; or, “in federal court, it’s common practice …,” when he was (again) a summer intern, not a year long clerk. Or that he shouldn’t read out loud sections from a brief that he finds “illogical” and then follow up with “why do lawyers make such stupid arguments?” He’s a nice guy, smart, means well, but trying to sound more seasoned than he is makes him come across as either insecure or condescending depending on the audience.

  11. I wonder if OP’s age has something to do with it? I speak from my own experience —

    I had the same experience as OP about 8 years ago. I was in my first job, just out of grad school, and I thought I knew a lot. I was 23 years old. About a month or two in, I had my first review, and was told that I came across as arrogant. It was really hard to hear, and I honestly didn’t realize that I was coming across that way.

    I decided to change some things that I was doing. I big change I made was that I sat back more and listened to other people, and became much more discerning in when I gave my opinion. That single change made a huge difference. I was giving off a better image, and I think being “quiet” more has benefited me by giving me more power when I do speak up.

    To OP — I know firsthand that hearing that kind of feedback can be awful. Try not to let it get you down, though! Use this as an opportunity. You can adjust a few things, and you and your career will be all the better for it!

  12. I’m not sure if there’s been any discussion about the millennial generation before. If anyone has insight on millennials in the office place, I’d be curious to hear your observations.

  13. I am no longer in a law firm and was not successful in that environment, but I always felt like everyone was arrogant. But, that seemed to work for most of my peers and supervisors — I may have misread the entire landscape but arrogance seems to go a long way in some environments.

    • Some people can get away with more arrogance than others. And I think that this is where the gendered nuance can come in, at times. Not all the time of course, but some.

  14. I work in an office where arrogance is sought after and rewarded, even in new hires. And yet… I still get this kind of feedback all the time. I also get feedback about needing to speak up more and be more assertive.

    So, in my experience, this is a tightrope walk that I can never win. Instead, I try to do the following things: be kind; be direct; be myself. I figure, that is pretty much all I can do. Some days, to some people, I’ll be too demanding and too arrogant. In other situations, I’ll be too soft and feminine. Most of the time, those judgments say more about the person giving the evaluation than they do about me.

    I wish I lived in a world where I can trust, accept and use feedback, but I don’t think I do.

    For more on the tightrope, check out What Works for Women at Work. And good luck.

  15. confident :

    One thing that Reader A might want to consider is that displaying confidence is not appropriate at this stage of her career. Should she have confidence in her skills? Of course. Should she look for ways to display that confidence? No. I’m in-house and work with law clerks that are high-achievers from top schools, and a little self-deprication goes a long way…especially when coupled with excellent work product.

  16. I agree that you should ask the hiring manager for more information so that you can determine what the exact issue is and change your behavior if needed. It could be that you rubbed a certain person or few people the wrong way – perhaps through no fault of your own – but you may want to better understand how to communicate with them if they may have an impact on your advancement. I don’t necessarily agree with the comments to keep your head down – if you do too much of that, you might get passed over for a project or promotion. I can’t speak to working in a firm, but in my experience in government, displaying confidence is not frowned upon so long as you understand what your role is in a given project and have the knowledge – of the facts, the law, and the client – to back up your assertions. And excellent work product, as mentioned above.

  17. Told The Same :

    I’ve been told this same feedback before. And I have to say, with some reflection, there was a bit of truth in it. I like to feel like I’m helping, whenever I can. So if I thought something would help, I would speak up. Retrospectively, this is super annoying to people.

    When I got the feedback from a manager, I toned it back, stopped speaking out, made myself quiet. Then my department chair approached me and asked what was wrong, and why I’ve stopped participating in meetings. I explained that I was trying to improve my behavior, and he told me that the only reason my manager didn’t like it was because he felt threatened. If you are better at your job than your boss, your boss is definitely not going to like it were almost his exact words. It was nice to have the support, but I still didn’t want to alienate people.

    So, I learned my lesson. I spoke up when I thought it was really important and I 100% new the answer, but stopped trying to put input into everything. Usually I would only speak up on issues directly relating to my working group. Even when I knew the answers to someone else. Sometimes, I actually would casually just go to my co-worker and tell them that I heard their issue and maybe doing XX would work to fix it. It would be a good conversation and I would get a lot out of it.

    Great news, I moved up past my initial boss. Now I’m allowed to be involved in everyone’s problems. But I’ve also learned how to better approach people to solve problems and gain input.

  18. If this were one supervisor or one manager, I would think that you can’t please everyone all the time, and you just happened to rub someone the wrong way.

    But it is “a couple” of supervisors in written evaluations *and* the hiring manager. There is one constant in there and it’s you, honey bear.

    I will also point out that your entire legal career is less than a year long. Before getting all puffed up about how awesome of a legal career you’re going to have, at least sit second chair at a trial once or twice.

  19. Former Biglaw :

    When I consider those in my career who have been described as arrogant, they share a few traits:

    –Acting like a partner when they’re a young/mid level associate. You’re not in charge yet. Do your work and offer an opinion when asked. This isn’t the time to be offering unsolicited input on how the firm could do things better/a case (you know little to nothing about) could be managed differently.

    –They had abrasive personalities, particularly with respect to staff and juniors

    –No assignment is beneath you. Don’t try to pawn off work or have your managing partner intervene for you with other partners (generally speaking…there are always exceptions)., or appear “put upon” when asked to do what you think is a menial task.

    All of the people that come to mind were men by the way. So I don’t think this is a gender issue.

  20. Anonymous :


  21. Anonymous :

    The last time my manager, the owner, told someone else that I thought I was better than everyone else, I just ignored it. I wanted to say, “How did you come to that conclusion?”, but I just didn’t want to talk to him. I thought maybe he was trying to start a fight, but actually, he was mad because he made a joke to someone else about my having to come in on Saturday (no overtime) and I had no response. Well, excuse me for being upset that I had to shovel for an hour just to get there for 3 measly hours, when others in the same department aren’t even required to work Saturdays.