If you read my column, you know I’m an avid Pickleball player. That’s the paddleball-like sport that combines parts of badminton, ping pong and tennis on a small sized tennis court.
This summer I’m in a league where each division is made up of teams with players of the same skill level. I recently ran into someone whose team we were scheduled to play. This person who we’ll call Sarah told me she is more skilled than us is only playing in our division because the organizer needed to fill the spot. She said her team is better than us and the other teams in our division, but she didn’t mind playing down.
Other than my initial disbelief at how someone could be so arrogant and condescending, it made me think about the difference between cockiness and confidence. It also made me want to obliterate her team on the court when we played them.
The official definition of cocky is “conceited or arrogant, especially in a bold or impudent way”. Similarly, the definition of confident is “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities”.
At work, one can mistakenly be confused with the other, which can lead to incorrect judgements and misperceptions about people. For example, I have a client who is perceived as cocky. He is very handsome, well-spoken and impeccably dressed. Often when people meet him, they quickly size him up as a “pretty boy” with no substance. Because he is the highest performer at his company which comes with envied perks, he is sometimes seen as arrogant and conceited by those who are perhaps jealous or don’t know him.
I have gotten to know him, and he is anything but cocky. He is kind, funny, smart and even a bit insecure. If anything, he sometimes doubts himself because he’s always striving to improve. He is confident about his abilities, yet always craves coaching and honest feedback to help him continually enhance his skills.
In my experience, cocky people tend to brag or show off even when they don’t have the skills or know how to back it up. Confident people like my client recognize their strengths but are also keenly aware of their challenges and vulnerabilities.
So, what about the girl on the pickleball court? Cocky or confident? My judgement says both.
She’s cocky because she knows she’s good. She’s confident she has the skills to back up her words and she’s not shy about singing her own praises. Traits that are not always unattractive unless you don’t know how to display them which in her case came off as cocky.
Yet, here is where cockiness and confidence differ on the court or in the workplace. Unlike a confident self-assured person who can admit a mistake, seek help and strive to improve, a cocky person often rationalizes, passes the buck and rarely apologizes.
At first her team was winning but as the match progressed, we began to take the lead. That’s when she started blaming her missed shots on high winds of the day. When we began to amass points, she started correcting her teammate’s approach, not her own. Good players know to aim put away shots at their opponent’s feet. Sarah slammed one directly at my upper body and when it hit me, she didn’t apologize. I had been looking forward to this match because I wanted to make her eat her words. Unfortunately, we lost.
Striking a balance between cocky and confident is a delicate form of communication that requires a certain level of finesse. Here’s how to achieve it:
Use facts, not sweeping statements
Instead of declaring her team is better and they don’t mind playing down, if Sarah had said her team is undefeated and they hope their winning streak continues, that would have sounded less boisterous and more factual.
Offer praise, not sour grapes
Telling someone they did a great job or complimenting their work doesn’t detract from your skills. It actually makes you appear more self-assured and confident. Studies show when people compliment others, it makes them feel better about themselves. Research says at work, praise increases morale and makes people feel more valued.
Have something to learn
If you are a know it all, you may alienate people, loose opportunities and damage your reputation. Perhaps Sarah doesn’t care what her opponents think of her, but just as business colleagues talk to other colleagues, players talk to other players and Sarah’s arrogant behavior is spreading throughout the league. There are people who have told the league organizer they don’t want to play with her again.
No one is always right regardless of skill or expertise. If you make a mistake, apologize or own up to it. Admitting wrongdoing makes you look confident, not weak.
At the end of our match, my team congratulated Sarah’s team and said nice playing with you. She responded, “maybe we’ll run into you again sometime” to which I replied, “maybe we’ll see you at the playoffs.” Cocky? Not really. Admittedly, I was just trying to get under her skin. Yet, at this point in the season, we are right behind Sarah’s first place team in league standings. That means we may face them again if we get into the playoffs.
If that happens, we’ll play with confidence because we have worked hard at becoming skilled players. However, win or lose, we’ll leave arrogance and egos at home. Poor behavior in any environment doesn’t look attractive on anyone.