Self-Confident or Cocky – Which Are You?

Before we can talk about cockiness, we have to understand the difference between self-confidence and self-esteem.

Self-confidence is Situational

It rises and falls in with circumstances.

When my boss, for example, promoted me, I felt a swelling wave of confidence. By the following week, though, my confidence receded as I realized that I wasn’t actually fully competent to fulfill my new responsibilities. Self-esteem, however, is cumulative; it grows from the time we’re infants and strengthens as we successfully overcome challenges, achieve goals, receive love, and get meaningful developmental feedback.

To illustrate the difference between esteem and confidence, imagine that your psyche is a tree trunk. Self-esteem is the hard woody center of the tree – the core – that grows and expands year after year. In dry years the growth is minimal, but when conditions are favorable, the core grows a thick new ring of hard fiber. Self-confidence, on the other hand, is the bark of the tree – the outer layer that is affected by environment and situations – the sun, wind, birds and kids with pocketknives.

Our self-confidence, then, strengthens and weakens in reaction to situational influences of work, relationships and finances; achieving a coveted goal strengthens our confidence, but receiving strong criticism from our boss’ boss might weaken it. Our self-esteem is a long term process that is fed by training, love and overcoming difficulty. People who are cocky are, usually, struggling with low self-esteem and are using that behavior to mask their vulnerable inner experience.

Praise alone, or honor without effort, does not build personal self-esteem; it requires achievement through trial and effort. In his book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, Nathaniel Branden said, “Self-esteem has two interrelated aspects: it entails a sense of personal efficacy and a sense of personal worth. It is the conviction that one is competent to live and worthy of living.” Self-confidence and self-esteem are related to competence. Competence, in turn, grows from training and learning, and practice and grit.

Cockiness is a Protective Strategy

Cockiness, on the other hand, is a protective strategy aimed at hiding insecurity and fear. Cockiness is an aggressive masking weakness. Rather than being threatened or annoyed by a cocky person, consider being a transformative leader who doesn’t get caught up in their process, and maybe even help them cultivate a real sense of self-confidence.

Four dimensions of behavior that highlight the differences between a self-confident person and cocky one:

  • Collaboration

    A self-confident person has the personal strength to share work, share praise, and give up some control for the greater good. A cocky person takes a “my way or the highway” approach in order to maintain their façade of strength and control.

  • Attention

    A self-confident person listens attentively; paraphrases, asks open ended questions, and clarifies for understanding. A cocky person listens only for material that interest them; returning the focus to them, interjecting, and matching ideas and content.

  • Accountability

    A self-confident person is willing to take responsibility for their life and actions. A cocky person seeks to blame other and situations for their failures of mistakes.

  • Humility

    A self-confident person accepts that they aren’t the center of the universe. A cocky person insists that they are the center of the universe.

Five Tips for Dealing with a Cocky Person:

  1. Keep your distance

    This is an obvious one, but not always easy to implement with a co-worker or boss.

  2. Set boundaries

    You have every right to determine what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable to you. Declare your boundaries and stick to them.

  3. Practice mindful observation

    Notice. Pay attention to the details of what they’re doing. Observe and evaluate them from a distance rather than getting caught up in the story. Then you can offer relevant, specific, and helpful feedback.

  4. Be brief

    You may have to counter their position or even protect yourself and your boundaries. In that case be succinct and to the point, given they are probably poor listeners and apt to turn your words against you.

  5. Find your funny bone

    A sense of humor is a powerful coping mechanism. No, don’t make fun of them in public. Rather, put a lens of humor over your eyes and see how it affects your reaction to their antics; you won’t get as bought in as usual.

Creating space for a cocky person to find their path to sure footed self-esteem is a rare and precious gift; a leadership gift that is truly transformative.

Eric Kaufmann is the founder and president of Sagatica, Inc. and the author of the forthcoming book, The Four Virtues of a Leader: Navigating the Hero’s Journey Through Risk to Results and the facilitator of the LTEN Transformative Leadership course. Email Eric at

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