How Agencies Can Strike the Right Balance Between Humility and Arrogance

By Mark Duval – The Duval Partnership

Agency leaders’ personalities can influence their agency’s cultures and reputations. Beyond that, agencies have their own “personalities,” so to speak, as represented through their brand, culture and positioning.

Here’s a look at two qualities often reflected in leaders and the agencies they represent. These qualities—humility and arrogance—are different sides of the same coin. In the right amounts, both are necessary for success (if confidence can be viewed as a dialed-down form of arrogance). But they can also burn bridges and do real damage. Read on to see how they might help or hurt your agency.

Humility in agencies and their leaders

Some agencies latch onto humility and incorporate it into their agency identity. They might also refer to themselves as low-ego or ”easy to work with.” Humility is widely recognized as an important characteristic of effective leaders, and it can signal positive attributes for an agency as well.

Embracing humility and low-ego as part of your agency’s identity could signal to prospects that your team is easier to work with and that there would be less head-butting throughout the relationship.

Humility might read favorably with prospects who’ve had bad experiences with prior agency partners, particularly involving “strong” or “difficult” personalities. It might also be attractive to prospects who manage several agency relationships and require them to “play nicely” with each other.

To the extent that your agency’s team can ask for help, admit mistakes, listen, accept feedback, and welcome other viewpoints, humility is a great asset. It can facilitate genuine connections and give rise to new ideas, making it a desirable quality for agency partners.

With the right client, a humble approach can lead to a friendly and collaborative working relationship where the agency’s expertise is appreciated as much as their easy-going nature. It can also facilitate more meaningful and successful work when results and what’s best for the client are prioritized above individual accolades and inter-agency competition.

However, humility might also work against an agency. Here’s how:

  •     If humility makes you a pushover when it comes to business. While humility doesn’t have to mean a lack of assertiveness, it’s possible that those who lean too far into a humble identity might be seen as passive and lacking in equal business stature. It could lead to people trying to take advantage of your agency at the negotiating table and throughout the relationship. You might have to push back to gain respect, and you might have to be willing to risk the opportunity if it’s not right for your agency. Don’t sell yourself short, don’t say yes to everything, and don’t discount your prices.
  •     If humility makes you feel less valuable. You shouldn’t apologize for your agency’s size or location or feel like you’re somehow not worthy. Being humble doesn’t mean you don’t know your value. If you’re in conversations with a prospect, believe you have a right to be there. Otherwise, you might lose a great opportunity with a brand whose team thought you had something great and unique to offer.
  •     If humility gets in the way of doing your best work. If being humble and low ego means that you never push back against a client’s ideas, it might mean that you aren’t doing your best job and providing the expertise they hired you for. In the worst case, it could result in having your name associated with work that reflects poorly on you and the clients, hurting your client relationship and your reputation.

Arrogance in agencies and their leaders

Arrogance is confidence gone bad. We could also call it over-confidence or having too much ego. An arrogant leader believes they are always right and always know best. When agency leadership exhibits this quality, it can reflect negatively on the entire agency.

While confidence and assertiveness are positive attributes in a leader, leaning too far into it can be a recipe for disaster. Arrogance renders leaders ineffective while breeding toxic work environments and eroding productivity. Because it leaves little room for other voices, arrogant leadership invites tunnel vision while discouraging diversity, constructive criticism, collaboration — and yes, creative thinking. It’s not surprising, then, that arrogance can also lead to missteps and hurt client relationships.

Did you know? Research has found that actual competency has no bearing on one’s confidence in a given area. Called illusory superiority or the Dunning-Kruger effect, it’s a cognitive bias where people incorrectly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area relative to other peoples’ knowledge or abilities due to a lack of self-awareness.

Additionally, many leaders delude themselves into thinking they are the best so that others will think so as well, even when their false act provides cover for their insecurity (Amy Edmondson and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in Fast Company).

Rightfully earned confidence and even a healthy swagger among agency leaders can be great for business. It’s well-known that success begets more success, and failure can demoralize when it comes to new business. The confidence your agency exudes can lead to a winning streak or a losing rut. So there is something to be said for “faking it until you make it” when it comes to agency confidence, as long as you stay grounded in reality.

The dangers of arrogance for agencies include:

  •     Lack of client-centricity. Agency leaders who come across as arrogant are often very self-focused. Think of all the agencies that go on about themselves and how great they are without even realizing how they come off to their audience.
  •     Not asking enough questions to win the business. Agencies that make this mistake might be viewed as arrogant. (Especially if it’s because they think they already know everything!)
  •     Losing opportunities by talking down to prospects. When there is genuine interest, and the agency still makes offhand comments implying the brand is small or somehow less-than, or that the prospect would be lucky to have them, it might be perceived as arrogant. Additionally, it can be intimidating, off-putting, and lead to missed opportunities.
  •     Losing opportunities because of assumptions. Some agencies might assume they’ll win a piece of new business because of their superior presentation skills, or their last success, or a recent Cannes award. In so doing, their overconfidence might lead them to neglect the client, underestimate the situation, and fail to do their due diligence on the opportunity at hand.
  •     Coming off as a bad partner. Agency leaders who are prone to arrogance are more likely to blame other parties rather than take ownership of failures. Bad-mouthing previous clients, colleagues, competitors, or agency partners only reflects poorly on the person doing the bad-mouthing and might make people think twice about working with you!
  •     Delivering sub-par or tone-deaf creative. When agency leaders tune out and discount other voices or fail to seek differing perspectives, lackluster work can result (ironically, the opposite of what they intended). This is more likely to happen on the watch of arrogant leadership.

 Parting thoughts

Humility and confidence are both valuable qualities for leaders and the agencies they lead. In fact, they serve as critical safety checks for each other.

The key is to leverage each quality in the right amount and do periodic temperature checks to ensure you aren’t listing too far in the wrong direction. When confidence is inflated to the point where it’s perceived as arrogance, it’s a problem. And when humility interferes with your ability to assert yourself, it’s a problem, too.

In a post for Harvard Business Review, Bill Taylor explores the relationship between humility and arrogance among leaders, asking us whether we are confident enough to stay humble.

Noting leaders’ frequent inability to do that, Taylor goes on to reference Edgar Schein’s Humble Inquiry, writing, “unfortunately people often would rather fail than [have the humility to] admit their dependence on someone else.” Interdependence is always part of the deal within organizations and in client relationships, which illustrates the potential damage of arrogance.   

To be our best as partners, leaders, and colleagues, we must always work to balance humility and confidence in ourselves and our organizations.

 

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