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Illusory Superiority: I Am the Best Negotiator!

Scenario: I have worked here for 30 years. I know how everything works. That is why people are intimidated by me. University Employee.

Scenario: I have traveled around the world so I consider myself to be an expert on life issues. Corporation CEO

Scenario: I have been negotiating for more than 25 years. I cannot think of an issue of which I have not negotiated. So, yes, I am a master negotiator. DC based Negotiator.

Quotes about overconfidence:

-Confidence is good but overconfidence always sinks the ship. Oscar Wilde

-Overconfidence will drown in the sea of reality. Norain.

-The problem with the world is that intelligent people are full of doubts while stupid people are full of confidence. Anonymous.

-People who are too sure of themselves are almost always wrong. Unknown

Illusory Superiority*: Many have never used this term but almost all have been affected by the concept. Psychologist Dr. David Dunning of Cornell University has spent years studying this concept which based on his research may affect up to 28% of professionals. The result is a great disparity between their actual performance and their self-rating. The effect is greater in the more ambiguous categories such as leadership and teaching abilities.

“The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills.

The concept of the Dunning-Kruger effect is based on a 1999 paper by Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The pair tested participants on their logic, grammar, and sense of humor, and found that those who performed in the bottom quartile rated their skills far above average. For example, those in the 12th percentile self-rated their expertise to be, on average, in the 62nd percentile.”**

The researchers attributed the trend to a problem of metacognition—the ability to analyze one’s own thoughts or performance

Ability to Get Along Rating: If one has doubts about this prevalence, take the example in 1976 where the College Board attached a survey to the SAT exams taken by approximately one million students. 85% of students rated themselves in the top 50% in the category of “ability to get on well with others, and 25% placed themselves in the top 1%.***

Assessment of Driving Abilities-Delusional: In a Harris poll when asked about their driving abilities,

-57%, rated themselves as above average.

-42%, rated themselves as average.

Dunning has another study of U.S. teenagers who rated their driving skills. 93%, rated themselves as above-average.

In another 1977 study, 94% of professors rated themselves above average relative to their peers.

It is also interesting that folks in North America seem to overestimate more than other countries/cultures such as Japan, Korea or China. Is that because Western culture value self-esteem and Eastern cultures, self-improvement?****

(Larry Ray comment: Based on my 40 years of living in DC, I would rate 40% of the drivers as reckless; 40%, negligent; and 20%, trying to do the right thing.)

Management: “Research strongly suggests that most managers are in the habit of overestimating their own credibility-often considerably.”*****

So, why is IL so prevalent? Many believe that people gives themselves the benefit of doubt so they assess their skills by assessing their “intentions;” whereas, they assess others by external traits and circumstances that guide their actions.

What is Illusory Superiority?

Some may compare it to the Lake Wobegon effect: We have the best schools; the most educated residents, the happiest citizens and the best culture in the world. Lake Wobegon refers to Author Garrison Keillor’s “mythical hometown” where all the children are above average.

The Lake Wobegon effect is the tendency to treat all members of a group as above average, especially when it comes to numerical values such as test scores or salaries; in a survey, there is the tendency for most people to describe themselves or their abilities as above average.”

This is the concept of an inflated sense of one’s skills Dunning discovered this is most prevalent in the so-called “soft skills:” leadership, supervision, communication, etc:

Leadership. ...

 Motivation. ...

 Communication. ...

 Conflict Management and resolution

 Trust Building. ...

 Decision Making. ...

 Organization.

 Effective communication skills.


 Dependability.

 Adaptability.

 Flexibility.


So, under Illusionary Superiority (IS), the following declarations might be made,

-I am the best problem solver.

-I am a great leader.

-I am an excellent team player.

-I am the most effective conflict resolver.

Of course, if one checks those who work around this individual, they would discover the declared skills are not realistic. Often one afflicted by IL will rate themselves a 12 out of a scale of 1-10. It would be of no surprise that those who work with them would rate their skills at 5-7.

Example: During a mediation training in the state of Delaware, each participant took a quick communication assessment test. Quavadus (Q) assessed her communication skills as “10.” She declared that her communication style was very direct. After she gave directions, people knew exactly what to do. Each participant was then given three copies of this same assessment. They were instructed to ask 3 individuals in their life to complete the assessment on them. Q gave this to her two teenagers and her husband.

The next day at a training luncheon, the teens and the husband had a consensus: Q, when you talk, you go on and on. We got it the first several minutes but we must listen for 12 more.

Q was shocked and realized that she needed to reassess.

Interestingly IL is not found that much in the “hard skills:”

 Data engineering.

 Database management.

 Data mining.

 Data visualization.

 Web analytics.

 Research.


Hard skills are usually based on technical knowledge and training. This might include wood-working, electric, plumbing, painting, etc.

Most people seem realistic about these skills.

How Does One Manage One’s IL?

Dunning recommends that people identify those whose lives are admired, figure out what they are doing and try to emulate this. Thus, “The road to self-improvement runs through other people.”

Ongoing feedback from trusted individuals might be the best way to manage one’s IL or to avoid IL all together. So, for each presentation, each speech, each memo, each important letter, seek several trusted people to review such and give feedback.

One of the best ways to give feedback is to use the Plus/Delta method; that is, what are the pluses-the good things and secondly, what are the deltas, that is, things that could be changed.

How Does One Manage Other’s IL?

Many would advise that the management of someone else’s IL may depend on whether the experience with them is a one-time event or ongoing.

-One Time Event: If this is a one-time negotiation or meeting, one way to manage this is to take on more of the burden. One can allow the person afflicted with IL to flow along with the unrealistic assumption they they are a great negotiator while the other negotiator does most or all of the work. The other negotiator will do their best to gather all relevant information and assist the one with IL to communicate and lead them eventually to a resolution or plan of action.

Confronting the person with that person’s exaggeration of their skills usually is ineffective and probably not worth the time.

-Ongoing Relationship: So, if one is dealing with someone on a long term basis, long term relationship, I might be worthwhile to persuade them to have some self-awareness of their skills and where they might need to improve. This must be done cautiously. Remember the old saying: A person pushed against their will is of the same opinion still. This means that they must come to this self-realization themselves.

An excellent way is to persuade them to ask them to seek feedback from trusted friends or family members. These folks must have the fortitude to be honest. Honesty is contagious so they must set the stage for such.

Sometimes training courses or seminars can help. Sometimes taking self-improvement instruments can also assist. It would be ideal to have that A-HA moment or moments.

Proceeding cautiously and firmly will be the best method.

Patience is the key. Remember it may have taken a long time for this person to acquire the overconfidence, the unrealistic self-assessment. Maybe it was from Western culture, community culture and/or family culture. The first step might be creating doubts. These doubts might open the door to self-improvement and self-realization.

Also, remember it takes time to change behaviors. First, the self-realization, then the intention and then the change takes time. The timing is individual. Some use the 21/90 rule; that is, 21 days of the intent to change and 90 days to change. Maybe it takes 3 months for the habit to be automatic. So, be patient and hope that the person will gain a realistic view of their skills so they can improve if they wish.

More Examples of IL:

-Mary the Bartender declared that the bar would fall apart if she left. This particular bar had been around for 22 years and she had been the bartender for 7 so most likely, not.

-David declared that the restaurant would fall apart if he quit as manager. Much like the above, probably not. Further, David asserts that most people come to the restaurant for “his good cooking.” A quick survey of customers says, no.

-In DC, a celebrated bookstore owner closed the business instead of selling it believing no one could run the bookstore successfully as he had done.

-A vegetarian restaurant, like the above, also closed because the owner believed no one could run it as she had successfully accomplished.

-Lee has his hospitality degree and believe that he is an expert but the customers who endure his type of hospitality would differ. One customer was trying to get on the internet and asked Lee for assistance. Lee poked fun at her old computer instead of providing assistance. Others cite various examples of being humiliated by Lee.

What is an Antidote to IL?*******

Socrates: Know Thyself. Of course, Socrates did not invent this saying. It is the motto on the frontispiece of the Temple of Delphi. It means that a person must stand and live according to their nature. They have to look at themselves.

Famous Author and Management Expert John Maxwell: “When leaders experience success, they should do more reflecting than celebrating.”

These two quotes symbolize “humility” which could be the exact antidote to IL. Regrettably, research seems to indicate that only 10-15% of Americans rate highly in this arena. “Humility is characterized by an ability to accurately acknowledge one’s limitations and abilities and an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented rather than self-focused.”

Sometimes this is referred to as Intellectual Humility (IH) IH is strongly connected to curiosity, reflection and open-mindedness. People with IH are,

-Less aggressive and less judgmental,

-They are not easily manipulated.

-IH may be critical to a sustained committed relationship.

-IH may nourish mental health allowing one to shake off grudges, suffer fools patiently and forgive one’s self.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect captions the concept of humility as a person who aspires to great competence and great confidence.**

Realize that in Most Cases, the Team Approach is Better than the “I” Approach.

New York Times Writer Adam Bryant interviewed Lloyd Carney, 8/28/2020. Carney is the CEO of successful Brocade, a data and storage networking firm. He declared that when he hires, during the interview he listens for “I, I, I” approach to accomplishments or is it the “We, we, we.” He goes for the candidate with the “We” aka team approach.

Carney also tells the tale of his Grandfather’s approach that no one is irreplaceable. When the Grandfather encountered someone who seems to think that they are irreplaceable, he would send Carney to get a bucket of water. He would ask the so-called “irreplaceable person” to stick their hand in the bucket and remove it. Grandfather then instructed the person that when the “irreplaceable” person leaves, they would leave the same hole in the water as they saw in the bucket. So, none.

(Humility is Something to Boast About, NYT 10-22-19, Benedict Carey)

Humility allows one to accurately acknowledge one’s limitations and abilities. This is an interpersonal stance that is “other-oriented” rather than self-focused. Humility is part of the 1990’s “Positive Psychology” that includes such sustaining qualities as pride, forgiveness, grit and contentment.

Oddly, those who are most open to humility may be the ones who need it the least.

Author and Economist Adam Grant also captures this concept in his book: Give and Take********. Grant is a tenured professor at The Wharton School and holds a PhD in organizational psychology. He asserts that he can make a valid economic proposition that those who are equally as concerned about others and themselves will be the most successful. In this book, he gives examples of people who are Givers, are in the long run the most successful and profitable.

He has a chart. On the horizontal is concern for others’ interests and on the verticle, concern for one’s self interests. He catalogs folk’s behavior in to four quadrants.

-Apathetic: Those who are not concerned about their interests or others.

-Selfish Takers: Those who are only focused on their needs.

-Selfless, Self Sacrificing Givers: Those who are only concerned about others’ needs.

-Otherish, Successful Givers: Those who are balanced with concern about their needs and others’ needs.

These Successful Givers are often the best negotiators and the best delegators.

Example: In Washington, D.C., 25 years ago the city was near economic disaster. The voters elected for two terms an uncharismatic Mayor who was a “WE” person. He was goal oriented and with the help of others turned the city around. Post his term, he is revered and still turned to when the city has issues.

Then they elected a young, charismatic Mayor who took an “I” management approach. He turned out not to be successful and barely made it through one term and was not re-elected.


The road to self-improvement runs through other people, Dr. David Dunning.

The Wall Street Journal, C-Suite Strategies has an article that captures this subject matter:

Confident or Overconfident-Four Questions to Ask Yourself by Dr. Sydney Finklestein:

-How much time do I really spend listening? Most people believe they are good listeners but the research shows that most people are listening at a 25% effectiveness level.

-Do I originate most of the ideas? If yes, maybe you are not listening to the other ideas of your team. Maybe periodically, “a creative audit” would be helpful.

-Do I often feel like I’m the smartest person in the room? If so, leaders need to take some time reflecting. How successful were your projects and ideas? Seek feedback.

-Do I think of myself as indispensable to my business’s success? If yes, turn the corner and credit your team with successes, invite them to speak first in meetings, and give them opportunities.

So Dr. Sydney Finklestein says that after answering these questions, take action to create healthy self-confidence.


*The term IL was first used by Van Yperen and Buunk in 1991. Other similar terms include superiority bias and the above average effect.


*** www.Wikipedia-Illusory Superiority.


***** Harvard Business Review, The Necessary Art of Persuasion, Jay A. Conger.


******* Current Directions of Psychological Science, New York Times, 10-22-19.


· Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success

· by Penguin Books

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