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  • Writer's pictureLouise Carnachan

Self-Confidence or Narcissistic Ignorance?

Updated: Aug 24

I’ve been pondering the question of whether the person who proceeds gamely forward without deep knowledge or experience is an irritant or actually someone to admire. I’ve negatively judged those I considered to be “running with scissors.” Yet, I have great admiration for people who tackle something for which they didn’t have the background but took the time to learn, experiment, and succeed.

Most of us prefer an expression of humility in others as opposed to an attitude of, “I can do anything.” However, I’m starting to think that this judgment might be a failing of the perceiver more than of the perceived. When asked how things are going, a handful of my clients consistently say, “Great!” But then I’ll hear from others in their orbit who provide contradictory commentary. So, are things going well or not so much? Yes, to both. The answer is in the eye of the beholder.

For the person who is off accomplishing things they “have no business doing,” life is good. They don’t see the problem or may overestimate their abilities. If they have to learn something to complete a project, they will. They try things out, fail, adjust, try again. Their view of setbacks is that of temporary bumps in the road, not stop signs. A superficial amount of information is all they require to begin; they don’t expect perfection because it can always be improved upon later.

Their critics, however, see each successive approximation as a failure, not as learning. I think what bothers them most is that they weren’t asked for their ideas—their nemesis doesn’t care about “how we do things around here.” The complainers believe their expertise has been snubbed or ignored—and they’re probably right. They want to be in on the action (and control it?). It hurts to be excluded.

A power struggle rarely ends with an amiable resolution. Questions like, “Who gave you the authority?” or declarations such as, “You don’t understand the history well enough,” create further division. Enlisting others to apply peer pressure is clearly meant (and accurately read) as an attempt to put someone in their place. If these strategies are your go-to tactics, please consider the following questions.

  1. Do you have a list of “shoulds” about work? By now you probably know that very few people will ever meet your expectations of perfection.

  2. Are you are wedded to being the keeper of the flame, a vision that was crafted long ago? If so, it’s time to recognize that evolution occurs—and it must if businesses are to remain vital to meet the needs of their customers/clients.

  3. Who most closely resembles your customers, you or the person you think is out of line? If it’s that person, you may have some learning to do.

  4. Are you approachable or do folks experience you as a roadblock? If you are being sidelined there’s a reason. Mentoring is great when it’s desired by the mentee but not when it’s forced. History is helpful until it becomes an excuse for maintaining the status quo no matter what. Expanding options through questions is useful when it doesn’t feel like an interrogation or an argument. If you objectively evaluate your behavior, would you want to seek you out for advice?

On the other hand, if you’re the one who feels hamstrung by someone you think is stuck in the past, here are some questions for you to consider.

  1. Have you written others off as lost causes and intentionally hide information from them? This is a recipe for a battle when they find out and it erodes their trust in anything you want to do going forward. You may be thinking you’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission, but there’s a balance. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, allow your recommended improvements to find their time. Try floating ideas and give them more than a minute to settle in. Initial push back isn’t necessarily a forever answer. With a bit of time and repetition, there might be softening of resistance (and they might even think it’s their idea!).

  2. Have you asked for input from others or are you determined to go solo in an attempt to avoid resistance? Notice how people stonewall anyway. Change is easier to implement when others have the opportunity to weigh in. You want to enlist those who are affected by a change because success requires their commitment, not just yours. You may not want to hear what was done in the past or what could go wrong but it’s information that could be valuable.

  3. Have you tried chunking improvements into smaller bits? Sometimes appetizer-sized change is more palatable than the whole enchilada. With each piece you propose, consider the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) from the view point of the others you want to bring along. If you’re only satisfying your own needs, that’s not nearly enough to sell others on doing things differently.

Whether you’re the one who optimistically initiates change or the one who skeptically thinks that your colleague is operating out of ignorance, there’s something for each of you to learn. As I reflect on situations where I felt the other person was out of line because of what I perceived to be a paucity of experience, I wonder what would have happened if I’d been less of a stick in the mud and offered support instead. Was it the actual proposed innovation that bothered me or the tone of the delivery? How often was it a lack of humbleness that stuck in my craw? Who is right may not be all that important since projects have a way of being molded by everyone as they evolve. But in terms of looking at the human experience, I’m beginning to think that the self-confident camp where flaws aren’t a problem is a much happier place to live than inside the critic’s tent.

Where would you rather be?

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