Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Arrogant employees are judged poorer at their jobs, even by themselves

We all believed that Neville
was a f f f fine lad
but when we go to know him better
Neville drove us mad.
Neville is a bighead
Neville is a pain
Neville is a pratt without a brain

Toy Dolls – Neville is a Nerd

Most of us can recount work experiences involving people we would call arrogant. However, there's been little research pinning arrogance down, measuring it, or discovering its consequences for the workplace. A recent paper introduces a way to measure it and investigates what sets the arrogant individual apart.

Russell Johnson and colleagues firstly set out their definition: arrogance consists of those behaviours that exaggerate your importance and disparage others. This distinguishes it from narcissism which, although related, includes thoughts and attitudes that don't affect others, such as the physical self-admiration of Narcissus himself.

The authors gathered experiences of arrogant behaviour from employee focus groups to create the Workplace Arrogance Scale (WARS) which they validated through a series of studies. An example item is 'Shoots down other people's ideas in public'. They were then able to turn to the consequences of arrogance, firstly showing that arrogant individuals report fewer organisational citizenship behaviours – acting beyond your job to help others or the wider organisation. They then turned to the biggie: how good are arrogant individuals at their jobs?

To answer this, the researchers recruited eighty-two participants from a number of companies. They provided a range of measures including the WARS, overall task performance and specific performance areas - customers, relationships and development – on which each participant was rated by themselves and by nominated individuals in their organisation. (Getting these other-perspectives was possible as the WARS looks at behaviours rather than hidden thoughts.)

Far from being the most able, arrogant workers were judged weaker in almost every way by one rating group or other. Some of the findings are less surprising: people who think their managers are arrogant grade them as poorer across the board, which may be influenced by a reverse halo effect (overgeneralising a negative feature) or using the rating process to punish those they resent. Some are more compelling: individuals who rate themselves more arrogant rate themselves weaker at relationships and overall performance, with their supervisors and direct reports agreeing.

Another study looked at cognitive ability within another 172 working individuals who completed the Wesman Classification Test, a well-established measure of verbal and numerical reasoning. Weaker performance in either area was associated with higher ratings of arrogance.

There's evidence that arrogant people are aware of these shortcomings, not least in the lower ratings they give themselves. The studies also gathered ratings of more internal features, finding that arrogant individuals report lower self-esteem, greater work-related strain, and are more likely to fixate on minimizing mistakes rather than focusing on success. This paints a picture of the arrogant as anxious to cut it but aware they may be performing at the edge of their ability, preoccupied with failure and trying to survive by cutting others down.

However, as all studies (bar the cognitive ability scores) used subjective ratings, we can't discount the possibility that it is perceived performance that is weaker for the arrogant; perhaps they alienate others and, ostracised, join their critics in discounting themselves. Further research using objective measures of performance (eg sales data) could address this issue. For now we should pay more attention to arrogance in the workplace: it appears the bigheads don't have the capabilities to match.

Johnson, R. E., Silverman, S. B., Shyamsunder, A., Swee, H., Rodopman, O., Cho, E., et al. (2010). Acting Superior But Actually Inferior?: Correlates and Consequences of Workplace Arrogance. Human Performance, 23(5), 403-427. doi:10.1080/08959285.2010.515279

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