How to Be Confident Without Being Cocky


“Where do you see yourself in five years?” asked the interviewer.

“I’ll have your job in three,” replied the millennial applicant.

Confidence is a good thing, but this wasn’t confidence. It was arrogance.

This is a true story I heard from an attendee of one of my leadership seminars (The Highly Connected Leader: Human Connection Strategies for Busy Bosses)

Needless to say, he didn’t get the job. In fact, the interview ended right there. “Thank you very much. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

This is a balance so many people struggle with – How can you have confidence without being seen as cocky or arrogant?

The reason this is a challenge is because most people have an incorrect view of confidence. They believe the “confidence scale” looks something like this:


Without confidence, you’re perceived as a “doormat”. Too much confidence and you’re seen as arrogant or “overconfident”. The key is to have some confidence…but not too much. Makes sense, right?


This is not how confidence works and if you think my little back-of-the-envelope doodle is an accurate view of confidence, then you’re probably struggling at work more than you need to be. Get the idea of “overconfidence” out of your head right now. Overconfidence doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as too much confidence. Say it out loud until you believe it. The myth of overconfidence and the fear of overconfidence is the biggest killer of genuine confidence that I’ve ever seen.

Stop. It.

Confidence and arrogance are different things altogether. They are not related to one another. You CAN have one without the other. Is EVERYONE who is confident also arrogant? Nope. Is EVERYONE who is arrogant also confident? Nope.

Bullies are arrogant, but deep down we know they aren’t confident in themselves. That’s why they bully others in the first place.

This is SO important…

The opposite of arrogance is NOT a lack of confidence. It’s deference.

Here’s another quick doodle to illustrate:


The vertical line is how much confidence you’ve got, the horizontal line is how much deference you’ve got. Each quadrant has a description of how others see you.

You can have AS MUCH CONFIDENCE AS YOU PLEASE, as long as you balance it with an equal amount of deference.

Without deference, you’re arrogant (whether or not you have any genuine confidence).

Psychologists Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer write:

“Confidence and deference are not mutually exclusive, and it’s usually a lack of deference rather than excess of confidence that gets powerful people into trouble.”

Donald Trump is confident, but not deferential. Abraham Lincoln was both.

The way to build deference is through perspective-taking. Seeing from their point of view is essential. Had our job applicant friend thought about it for a moment, he would have realized how he sounded to the interviewer.

Here’s how the interviewer felt in that moment…

“Have my job in three years? Honey, it took me twenty to get here and I’m not giving it up to some snot-nosed whippersnapper who thinks he’s king shit.”

End quote.

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