How to deal with an overconfident colleague

The road to confidence starts with competence.

We all have that one coworker … the person who dominates meetings rambles on, regurgitates others’ ideas, or generally edges out anyone who threatens their spotlight.

This overconfident colleague may be frustrating, but research shows their assertiveness and projection of capability often leads them to initially succeed over others, then flame out over the long term.

“Everybody believes they’re confident, but what they don’t realize is they’re not competent,” Kelly Lockwood Primus, the CEO and president of Leading Women, who has trained thousands of high-potential leaders, tells Inverse.

This week, Inverse explores how to build lasting confidence even when your self-esteem is shot, how to overcome perfectionism and avoid arrogance, and how to deal with an overconfident narcissist at work.

I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.

The road to confidence starts with competence

Research shows people start to develop self-esteem around 7 years old. They draw social comparisons to others and build their self-perception based on how they think others see them. But even if self-esteem has been relatively low throughout life, honing skills, getting feedback, and quieting self-doubt can help it grow. Confidence is a skill you can learn, not a trait cemented at birth, Primus explains.

“Most articles on confidence talk about individual, personal greatness and engaging other people,” Primus says. “And what they forget to talk about is the most critical factor of leadership: understanding how the business works.”

It’s crucial to build confidence on knowledge, Primus says, not inflate your self-esteem without developing the skills to back it up.

“Do your homework,” Primus advises. “Learn how decisions are made at your company so when you do take on projects, you can deliver.”

If you’re new to a company, it’s helpful to find a mentor who can walk you through the intricacies of its operations. If you’re struggling to speak up in a meeting, tag-team the conversation with a coworker. And before you share an idea with confidence, make sure you understand the ins and outs of what you’re talking about.

How to rebuild after your confidence is shot

In the professional realm, failures, critiques, and even layoffs are inevitable. But when these events occur, it’s vital to distance yourself from your own feelings.

“If you have a blow to your self-confidence, think about the reality of what happened as opposed to how you’re experiencing it,” Primus advises. “Give yourself the opportunity to be objective.”

But conducting an honest self-appraisal is often easier said than done. If you’re having trouble identifying your shortcomings or strengths, ask a friend or colleague to walk you through the situation. Having a second pair of eyes can put your own mistakes (which can seem monumental) in perspective. Taking an objective look at your professional life can help you avoid becoming overconfident, or worse, narcissistic.

And when it comes to smaller mistakes, a major stumbling block on the road to confidence is perfectionism. If you can only offer a proposal or project confidently after agonizing over every detail, your progress will be slowed.

Recognizing that self-esteem stems from the overall impact of a project, not derailed by a typo on the slide deck, can help you see the bigger picture. Don’t let perfectionism paralyze you.

“Learn to be confident enough that what you’re providing will do whatever you say it will, but don’t get so caught up in the minutiae that you never move forward,” Primus says.

How to counter an overconfident narcissist in the workplace

For decades, Primus has noticed the sheer volume of people who’ve ascended to senior positions driven by confidence alone. Indeed, studies show that overconfidence, charisma, and charm are often mistaken for leadership potential.

In turn, arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to actually being a good leader who motivates high-performing employees or delivers on promises.

When an overconfident person dominates the workplace, it’s unwise to challenge them aggressively.

“The only thing I have ever seen a super-confident narcissist respond to is objective data,” Primus says.

Do the research, run the numbers, and then introduce data insights to this colleague in a non-confrontational way. Lead with statements like, “I’m trying to understand or learn more about x,” rather than questions that put them on defense.

When an overconfident narcissist is your boss, the situation is tricky. Working for a narcissist can be demeaning and demoralizing, Michael Maccoby, a veteran psychoanalyst and leadership expert, tells Harvard Business Review.

“You need a basis for [deriving personal value] that’s independent” of your job, Maccoby says. “That’s generally true in life,” but it is especially important when your boss is a narcissist.

Start volunteering, competing in rec sports leagues, or doing a hobby outside of work. Finding an outlet for your stress and an external source of confidence can keep you afloat at work.

Dealing with an overconfident coworker or boss can be worth it if staying in your position aligns with your goals. But if you end up working for a “narcissist with a destructive philosophy of domination and control,” Maccoby advises, “Get out!”

Follow their lead to build confidence, not arrogance:

  • Yvon Chouinard, climber, environmentalist, and co-founder of outdoor retailer Patagonia, has spent decades redefining confident leadership, The New Yorker details. The executive pushes for environmental stewardship while supporting the well-being in his employees, not catering to his ego.
  • Jazmine Hughes thought learning to swim at 28 would be simple. Instead, the process transformed her life in and out of the water, which she chronicled for New York Times Magazine.
  • Swiss explorer Sarah Marquis, spotlighted by Outside, has spent a lifetime traversing harsh environments solo. Marquis says she travels to “rediscover the lost language between humans and the animal kingdom,” and is reimagining what it means to be an iconic explorer.
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