The Arrogance Epidemic

In the face of our success, we sometimes become poetically destructive.

Behind each of our unsavory characteristics lies a personal backstory. Our shortcomings are most certainly the direct result of a life event, perhaps long forgotten. We are to some extent victims of circumstance, but if there is ever a time to make an exception to this rule, I would argue that it be in the case of arrogance.

The internalization of superiority has been silently sifting deep into both business and society- a phenomenon which seems to be going unnoticed. Clear indicators of this shift in mindset are riddled throughout popular culture and politics, but perhaps most obvious in social media: to the discerning eye it is easy to see how the 1950s western mantra of 'everything is fine' has transformed into a self-worship exclaiming 'everything is great, all thanks to me.' To understand why this mindset can be harmful, consider the following:

Arrogance is self-inflicted ignorance intended to protect one from the harmful truths of reality.

If this seems like a childish outlook on life, it is. Resolving problems by sidestepping them should be sickening to anybody who solves problems for a living, which includes all product managers.

Those who harness arrogance are difficult to identify at face value; such values are typically buried deep enough to become invisible to the hosts themselves. If you're looking to quickly diagnose an individual with something as complex and abstract as arrogance, good luck... but after an extended period of time is spent in the wake of another's nearly inexplicable actions, there are patterns in action which seem to hint at a silent reality.

How Arrogant People Make Decisions

Arrogant Decisions

In economics we always assume that human beings are rational, and act in the interest of themselves and the organizations they represent. When key stakeholders have stints of unfounded abrasiveness, it would be foolish to brush these occurrences off as meaningless. One possible explanation would be if one's personal needs temporarily deviated from the success of the own company, with the former holding more short-term value.

Educated people seem to constantly come to same logical conclusions when presented with the data and evidence necessary to make a decision. The vast majority of disagreements between people typically stems from a discrepancy in information between two parties- it's far less likely that two people will interpret data in wildly different ways than it is that they are weighing evidence and facts differently. There have been a handful of arguments in my career which have been truly inexplicable: intelligent individuals whom typically dissect decisions suddenly become abrasive, even on topics they were mostly uninvolved with. These instances left me intrigued as I truly did not see the counter argument: what were they seeing that I was not, and why could the evidence for their argument not be raised? More baffling is a tendency to become emotionally charged in these scenarios, when the problem at hand may be a relatively obscure product feature.

Across organizations there comes the inevitable moment where this seemingly unexplained fury surfaces. The cause may be simple more simple than we assume:

Arrogant people tend to value being right more than doing what's right.

Not all arguments send me into an existential crisis, but when 2 + 2 does not equal 4 to another individual it is worth asking questions. In taking another's perspective as your own, much can be revealed about the integrity of another.

For example, consider how common it is for institutions to hold a disregard for analytics, or other forms of numerical proof. An early shock to my product career was just how many UX and product decisions are made off-the-cuff in board room meetings between executives, typically the same executives who tout the importance of online sales, but are admittedly 'bad at computers.' After repeatedly experiencing this first hand, it became easy for me to foresee which aspects of a product would come under fire or scrutiny in such weekly meetings, which I attempted to offset by preparing analytics reports and analysis ahead of time. From my perspective, I had been attempting to defend the integrity of our products from overcomplicated checkout flows and clunky unintuitive UI. The result was of course a smashing success, and every stakeholder carefully made informed decisions. Just kidding, the opposite happened: numbers were treated as offensive personal attacks. Digging for logical answers only strongly reaffirmed that there were in fact none. In the times I stood by numbers, arguments would sometimes break down into statements such as "don't fight me on this" or "this conversation is over." With sales quarters on the line, an uncomfortable number of decisions seem to be based on emotions over facts.

Imposter Syndrome is a common psychologoical occurance which exists in nearly all working professionals to some degree. Despite our own professional achievements there is a scary subconscious thought advocating that our success may have come by chance. While this is mostly unfounded, imagine how a person with significant evidence for this case may feel when confronted with numerical evidence which states they are, in one small instance, quantifiably wrong. To somebody protecting a successful career to support a mortgage and a family, a powerful fear might arise: that this is the moment that the jig is up, and it all comes crashing down from here. Despite the ridiculousness of such an assertion, these are the moments when human beings tend to be irrational.

Reckless Enforcement Of Power

Arrogance in Technology

Barriers of communication between upper management and employees is a common frustration, even if these structures exist for a good reason. What is worrisome however is the trend to build more of these barriers over time, with little change in size to the company. Within 'flat' organizational structures it's worth questioning how useful any "open door" policy is when management seems to intentionally overbook themselves, or simply not show up to the office for anything other than meetings. When important figures begin distancing themselves from day-to-day duties and regular employee check-ins, it sends a message that employees are not worth their time. This may be an indicator of something larger and more toxic coming to fruition:

Overly defensive and self-conscious leadership enforces protective power structures, with little or no room for upward mobility.

Closing lines of communication demonstrates genuine disinterest. In such an environment the achievements and successes of human beings become invisible, similar to the 'negative yelp review' complex: if employees are functioning above status quo without disciplinary action, few managers residing in their own ivory towers will take the time to deconstruct their team's needs and wants. But if an arrogant individual is rational, could they really be so blind to the inherent needs of the human beings who make up their company? To begin deconstructing this, we would have to assume their narrative is positioned from a drastically different viewpoint.

To shift perspectives, consider the following:

  • How does upper management describe the organization? Are they words of unwavering praise?
  • What has been the trajectory of growth for the organization? Have things been a steady upwards trend over time?
  • How are evaluations of peers conduced? Do they frequently occur behind closed doors, without the person in question present?

If we are able to answer "yes" to all of the above, it's easy to paint a hypothetical picture. With prolonged success it is natural that a strong (perhaps blind) faith in the organization would manifest itself in the eyes of the leadership who have benefitted most. "Why should anybody not want to work here? Our greatness is only constantly reaffirmed," they might ask. Unwavering growth from humble beginnings understandably creates a protectiveness from those whose lives depend it. This protectiveness is made most obvious in a number of ways: identifying allegiances, silent peer takedowns, and unwillingness to promote are a few clear indicators of a fragile ego at the helm.

Suddenly these actions do not seem so irrational. Is ruling by mandate arrogant? Of course, but it is not irrational in the mind of somebody subconsciously fearing for their well being.

Arrogance In The World

World

Arrogance is happening everywhere in everyday life within all of us, so it is not entirely fair to judge organizations in a vacuum.

We are now 70+ years removed from a war which changed the world and resulted in the most significant shift in political landscape to shape our planet. As a member of a first world nation with access to these words, you are a direct beneficiary from the outcome of a war you have never experienced, and how has our world embraced this victory? The allies remain champions of freedom, which is a bold statement to continue to remain unchecked considering we've held no more liberties than any perceived opposition.

There is no better example of political arrogance in the world than the phenomenon of Brexit. By setting forth a referendum, the equivalent of Britain's elite had essentially left the fate of the kingdom up to chance, hinging on only the will of the disenfranchised majority. The choice had been so obvious, they assumed, that the UK opted to place democracy in the hands of the citizens on the wrong side of systematic wealth extraction. Those most revealing aspect of how Britain perceives its citizens was in the virtual inaction by David Cameron and the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, not to mention every business and professional standing to lose from an EU exit. These parties gave the prospect of Brexit no chance until it was already too late, as they expected the very people they neglected to save the nation from itself. Surely I would not need to go far to find other examples matching the creation of barriers and self-inflicted ignorance.

How is arrogance reflected in every day life and culture? Consider some of the core values which enable the largest shift to 'alternative' culture in recent memory. Quality food and drink, new found importance in art and live music, and strong ideals leaning to the political left are key values in younger generations. These seem to have good intentions at first glance, but a few questions arise: what is the counterpoint to all of this? Why are all of these things seemingly limited to the financially stable? Perhaps a love for the subjective and championing racial equality mark a revolution to another half: a half which has traditionally represented, say, a lower class. In which case, is creating an environment to exclude those perceived as the lesser not the very definition of arrogance?

The pieces do seem to fit together nicely. A system of perpetuating cultural arrogance is undoubtedly complex, but close observation of potentially interconnected trends provides a rather clean inevitable narrative.

Naturally, this all a matter of my biased personal opinion. By no means would I claim any of the above to be a matter of fact. Doing so could be considered arrogant, after all.

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Todd Birchard

Todd Birchard

Application Architect New York City

Application architecture at WeWork. I build contraptions, automate boring stuff, and make lives easier. Python, data, robots.

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