Beware The Self-Righteous Fool

March 27, 2012

Self-righteous: Confident of one’s own righteousness, especially when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others. (

How should we deal with self-righteous people at work? I’ve reached the conclusion that we don’t.

Self-righteous folks only care what we think when we agree with what they think. That’s annoying for sure, but it does not necessarily require a response from us. It’s only when the self-righteous individual attempts to exclude or discount the voice of others that we need to respond; that rude behavior is unacceptable and it merits an assertive request to “please stop doing that.” Ignoring the behavior is tantamount to colluding with it. Politely and firmly address the behavior, but forget about addressing the self-righteousness we think causes the behavior.

I don’t think self-righteousness is either a transient mood or malleable job attitude. I think in most cases the cause of self-righteous behavior in individuals is some more stable personality tendency (e.g. narcissism, low-self monitoring, locus of control, self-esteem). While we can and should address behavior at work, don’t think for a minute that we can change someone’s personality. That’s folly.

I know this answer won’t please the coach/consultant guru types that sincerely believe their wizardry can address any dysfunctional behavior in the workplace. That too is folly.

The only root of self-righteousness that we can adequately address is our own. The first response of an awareness of self-righteousness in others should be a look in the mirror, lest we forget what we too are capable of. Ultimately, the only way we can create lasting change in our organizations is by assuming responsibility for the painful process of changing ourselves.

Beware, or the biggest fool in the self-righteous quicksand might be you.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Comments (26)

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  1. I deal with this type of person on a day to day basis. The problem is that they know they are self righteous and they don’t care. I have tried to politely say something, but he is one of my supervisors. His bosses are aware of his self righteousness, but they won’t say anything. What are you supposed to do in a case like this? Find a new job? It creates a hostile environment in the workplace, but it is unnecessary. I guess this is to be expected in a state agency though. Great post!!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Matt. Wow, I have to say I always assume people with character flaws are not aware of them, so this is indeed a tough situation you are in. Honestly, I think hostile work environments are unacceptable. If you can’t see change coming, work to survive, but then plan to move on. Thanks for sharing! Bret

    Helen Reply:

    How do you deal with someone that is like this when you are married to them? I DO tell him he is being rude (I have become more bold). BUT, to get a word in and then he keeps pointing the finger at me… I don’t think very fast when I am getting attacked and I am just stumped!! Afterwards – when the bleeding (not literal) stops – that is when I start realizing that what he said has very little credibility or is only based on half facts. His attacks always makes me the bad guy – and I never want to discount the possibility that I am at fault so I just don’t want to argue till I have time to self check – so basically he gets away with it. I just wish I had some answers on how to handle these situations – I just end up walking out and not sure if that is the best road to take… PLEASE write an article on being married to someone like this!! (PS I do understand how easy you can become self-righteous – I mean NONE of us would do something we THOUGHT was the wrong way – but in a real world there just IS “more than one way to skin a cat” so to speak – and I just think we have to respect that…

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Helen. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts; however, while you pose a very good question is it beyond my area of expertise. Perhaps one of my other readers can offer some advice on this behavior within the context of marriage. Thanks, Bret

    Pegotty Reply:

    My advice is to slow it down and remember that you can only manage your response to what he says – only he can change the way he is – although you have a big influence by how you respond to him. It is natural that you get into survival mode when you feel you are being attacked. Oddly enough his attack is probably not about you but about him. Take a deep breath. Get curious about what he needs in that moment to get things back on the right track. If you consistently apply a response instead of a resist and it doesn’t make a difference – it is time to seek the support of a good coach or therapist. Brett is right, you can’t coach this person but you can be coaches yourself!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome and thanks for addressing Helen’s question. Bret

    Helen Reply:

    Just where would you find a coach? Or is there a book you would recommend? Thanks for your help!

    Pegotty Reply:

    I would recommend as a book Leadership and Self-Deception from Arbinger Institute – and I would be happy to talk with you about coaching as I a an Arbinger trained coach. You can reach me through my website

  2. Beth says:

    Bret, I agree with your assessment that self-righteous behavior on the job can’t be changed using normal coaching techniques or incentives. At the most we can require behavioral compliance to concrete rules at work. If I were assigned to mentor a self-righteous individual I might merely point out the visible behaviors I observed and their potential negative impact on the person’s career growth. But I would probably end up doing a lot of eye-rolling in private!

    Good point about doing a self-check. This is a weed that grows in everyone’s garden! – – Beth

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Love your way with words, Beth. You know, you *really* should be blogging 🙂 You have so much wisdom to share, and I appreciate you sharing it here. Thanks! Bret

  3. This is a weed that grows in everyone’s garden because we are all cut from the same human cloth. I am not as pessimistic about this person beng able to see it but we also have to come from a place where we are not being self-righteous as a coach, mentor or even a friend. We are all good at knowing we should do something and then deceiving ourselves by choosing another path, and now we have to justify ourselves. Maybe that is the source of the self-righteousness?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    A weed in everyone’s that, Pegotty. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  4. John Torres says:

    The narcissists are an impossible burdon in any business. They truly believe they are never wrong or things are “not their fault”. These types of people are bad for business and will ultimately cause damage within a company. Best of luck to anyone that has to manage these personalities.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, John. I totally agree with you and appreciate you sharing your thoughts! Bret

    barrie Betts Reply:

    Bret, you have given me a new expression which is just perfect for the type of person we are all referring to. They/he will be called forthwith by me as “Mr Not my fault” Previously wording was —- you know when he is lying –“when his lips move” but too long
    Barrie Betts

  5. Greg says:

    Self righteous people are hypocrites, arrogant narcissists, and liars (i.e. tell secrets that hide the truth, deceive to distort the truth, deliberately omit info/refuse to answer to silence the truth, and talk behind people’s backs/gossip to distort the truth). Very difficult people to deal with. Mind games and mental manipulation galore.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Greg. I agree! thanks for sharing your thoughts, Bret

  6. barrie Betts says:

    Your words are so right –I am of an age were this type of person I had never experienced –but at this late age of 73 I have, which shows again you are never too old to learn or have a new experience albeit in this respect very unpleasant
    Kind regards
    B Betts

  7. Gerard Scullion says:

    I’ve found your advice on this topic to be very useful Bret, as I was already worried that I was becoming self righteous myself by criticising a couple of self righteous individuals. I found them in a market leading organisation where the local cultural paradigm included an uninformed assumption that most successes were down to internal competencies and most failures were down to external incompetence. By regularly pointing to external incompetence they were both able to exploit the local paradigm as, not only did it allow them to blame external incompetence for their own mistakes, omissions and resistance to change, but their views were also popular and held in high regard amongst those who relied on the local paradigm to understand failures. Their behaviours were very manipulative and destructive but as they were aligned to the local paradigm they were also being intrinsically and extrinsically rewarded to create a vicious reinforcing cycle. They had, therefore, found a niche protected by the local paradigm.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Gerard. Great point that we have to be careful how we engage these people, lest we too begin to behave in similar ways. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Bret

  8. diane says:

    I was just listening to a religious lecture/scripture explained , and it involved the word self righteous . I looked it up and it led me here. WOW… This year I learned about “narcissistic personalities” (my sister revealed to me her soon to be ex-husband has this). My question is what is the difference between the two,and how do I know if I am one??? I am very compassionate (to a fault),pray for people all the time and will go out of my way to do something nice for someone but I do think I am intelligent and I do like to gossip( working on that)and I can’t stand selfish mean people.I guess I also cut people down when they lie and are dishonest crooks!!! Could I be self righteous? and what do I have to do to change. I am always looking to improve myself .Would appreciate any feed back, Thanks

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Diane. Narcissism is a different can of worms. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Bret

  9. Sue says:

    We have a very self-righteous guy at work, he has been here a few years now and it wasn’t that noticeable until we moved to open plan office and now the only way i can deal with it and his incredibly loud voice is to glare at him (that has no effect except to make me feel better) and then insert my ear phones and try desperately to block him out. He has been spoken to on numerous occasions but it has made no difference at all. That is about to change though as a customer rang in to speak to his boss and he was offered the option of seeing if Mr SF could help, the customer laughed and said that is like putting Fun and Run in the same sentence, it doesn’t happen. It has now become apparent to those higher up the chain exactly how badly he is affecting the very core of our business.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Sue. Thanks for sharing your story. Bret

  10. Dieter Kendall says:

    Bret — there seems to me to be some smug intolerance in the comment “I know this answer won’t please the coach/consultant guru types that sincerely believe their wizardry can address any dysfunctional behavior in the workplace. That too is folly.” It seems judgmental to include ALL coaches and consultants in such a sweeping conclusion.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Dieter. I think your observation is valid. Very few things in this world are absolute. Generalities are necessary and useful to help us understand behaviors, but they never apply in all situations. All generalities have boundaries. The generality I offer here is from my bounded perspective, and I stand by it, but you are right to point out that it could never apply to all coaches and consultants, and I assumed my readers understand that. I hear statements all the time made about academics, and even when they are accurate, I never assume that they all apply to me. Thanks! Bret