How Well Do You Know Yourself?

Ray Williams
8 min readJul 11, 2021

Most people claim that they have an accurate self-assessment and that they are aware of their blind spots and aware of how other people see them. Research shows this is not true.

My experience as a coach of CEOs and executives over the past 40 years has shown me that is not true. Which promoted me to write my new book, I Know Myself and Neither Do You: Why Charisma, Confidence and Pedigree Won’t Take You Where You Want to Go.

Accurate self-assessment is all about self-awareness which can be as an awareness of one’s own personality, character or individuality. Psychologist Daniel Goleman proposed a popular definition of self-awareness in his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, as “knowing one’s internal states, preference, resources, and intuitions.”Self-awareness is not only an internal phenomenon but a social or external phenomenon too. We get the reflection of ourselves through the human mirrors, that is, from others’ opinions, responses and reactions.

Self-aware people have the ability to see how others view them and understand the impact of their behavior on others.

The problem of congruence in how we assess ourselves is essential to self-awareness, one’s individual identity, and the degree of self-deception. As a form of cognitive dissonance, self-deception has been described as a discrepancy between the way in which we know how we ought to act and how we actually behave. Self-deception is one of many defense mechanisms that enable us to maintain self-esteem and our identity.

In one study of more than 13,000 professionals, researchers found almost no relationships between self-assessment and objective performance ratings. A second study by these researchers found more than 33% of engineers rated their performance in the top 5% relative to peers.

Another study showed that 94% of college professors thought they were above average in their jobs. In 2001, 91% of Harvard University students graduated with honors, and in 2013, 50% of all grades awarded were A’s. By 2015, 72% of students didn’t think grade inflation was a problem.

Yet, the reliability of self-assessments and lack of self-awareness is significant. One study showed that employees who lacked self-awareness reduced decision quality by 36% and increased conflict by 30%. Another study with hundreds of publicly traded companies found that those with poor financial returns were 79% more likely to employ large numbers of employees who were not self-aware.

Accurate self-awareness and self-assessment become far more difficult if we have a distorted or exaggerated view of ourselves. Some experts blame the self-esteem movement of the last few decades for this development.

These days, self-esteem has acquired a second meaning: “an unduly high opinion of oneself; vanity.” It is this definition that best fits Generation Y, according to Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University. She argues inflated egos leave many young people with unrealistic expectations, and their inability to achieve these can lead to depression.

Twenge argues that a sign of overblown self-esteem is rising levels of narcissism. She reports that twice as many college students had high levels of narcissism in 2006 compared with the early 1980s. Narcissists tend to be intolerant of criticism and prone to cheating and aggression. “These are the people who wind up in your office arguing over a grade,” she says. In her book, The Narcissism Epidemic, written with co-author W. Keith Campbell, she describes cases in which people hire fake paparazzi to make themselves look famous, and buying “McMansions” on credit, as evidence of the Americans’ overblown ego.

Tasha Eurich argues persuasively that we are “living in an age of focus on self and self- aggrandizement.” This corresponds to the rise of the age of self-esteem. Eurich goes on to say “an excessive self–focus obscures our vision of those around us and distorts our ability to see ourselves as we really are.” She quotes the research that shows an inverse relationship between how special we think we are and how self-aware we are.

Psychologist Roy Baumeister has studied the issue of self-esteem extensively. He reviewed 15,000 studies and found:

  • The relationship between self-esteem and success was virtually non- existent.
  • People with high self-esteem are more violent and aggressive, and more likely to have relationship problems.

It’s worth looking at some scientific studies that examine the question of accurate self-assessment.

Do you think you are more intelligent than other people? Do you think you are more attractive than other people. Do you think you have higher moral standards than others? If you said yes to these questions, you’re in good company.

People tend to think they are more intelligent than others, but results from a recent systematic survey of Americans’ beliefs about their own intelligence found that about 70% of men and 60% of women agreed with the statement: “I am more intelligent than the average person.” The researchers concluded that Americans’ “self-flattering beliefs about intelligence are alive and well several decades after their discovery was first reported.”

Other studies have found over-estimates intelligence can be substantial — 30 IQ points, on average, according to a study published in the journal Intelligence, by Gilles Gignac and Marcin Zajenkowski . The researchers also reported that people tend to over-estimate their romantic partner’s intelligence.

People think they are more “better looking” than they actually are according to research by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago and Erin Whitchurch of the University of Virginia. In their research studies they reported that we see ourselves as more attractive than we actually are.

A survey was conducted by OnePoll and commissioned by Behold Retreats, asked respondents how they would compare themselves to others in their lives, 56 percent claimed they’re “better” than everyone else they know.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology people in higher social classes are more overconfident and have “an exaggerated belief” that they will perform better at certain tasks than others.

These findings contradict the common misconception that everyone thinks they’re better than the average person, . “Our results suggest that this type of thinking might be more prevalent among the middle and upper classes,” Peter Belmi, a professor at the University of Virginia and the lead author of the study.

Also, a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that people believe that they are more just, virtuous and moral than others. The study also show that people rate themselves more highly in modesty than others.

The “Dunning-Kruger effect” refers to peoples’ tendency to over-estimate their ability to complete a task. As David Dunning has written: “The scope of people’s ignorance is often invisible to them.”

This over-confidence can be damaging to the person and to others. For example, a US study of student pilots found that those who’d scored lower on a pilot knowledge test “grossly overestimated their ability” while higher-scoring students tended in fact to under-estimate theirs. The same result occurred when studying chemistry students. The same effect has been noted among other groups such as chemistry students who’d scored less than 50% on one exam had predicted that they’d get an average of 69%, while their actual average mark was just under 37%.

Then there’s the interpersonal perspective. People tend to think they know their personality really well. How well do you know your own personality as it fluctuates from moment to moment? A study found that participants in the study were not good at rating their agreeableness (one of the Big 5 personality elements) at any given time. The researchers conclude: “This apparent self-ignorance may be partly responsible for interpersonal problems”.

People can get better at self-awareness and self-knowledge. Well, the people around you could be more honest but in general, other people don’t help us to correct our biases. Too often, feedback from employers, family, and friends is vague, and overly positive, according to research led by Zlatan Krizan at Iowa State University. “As a society, we make the wrong trade-off by thinking that boosting self-esteem is going to boost performance, and that rarely happens,” Krizan says. “That empty praise of telling someone they’re great, or pretending there are not skill differences when there are, can really become a problem.”

Self-awareness comes from both an honest self-assessment as well as getting honest feedback from others. Research published in the journal Self and Identity suggests that people who are more modest about their degree of self-knowledge actually know themselves better.

In another study, Jean Guerrettaz and Robert Arkin found that when a person’s self-confidence or self-esteem was weak, their self-awareness and self-knowledge also suffered.

Implications for Leaders

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief talent scientist at Manpower Group, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University in New York City, an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab and author of the book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and How to Fix It), asks the question and provides an answer “Have you ever worked with people who are not as good as they think they are … men are typically more deceived about their talents than women are. And they are also more likely to succeed in their careers. That’s because one of the best ways to fool other people into thinking you’re better than you actually are is to fool yourself first.”

Chamorrow-Premuzic asserts his research shows that so many men are incompetent because of these reasons: “First, we fail to distinguish between confidence and competence, and men are universally over-confident; the second reason is our love for charismatic individuals, fuelled by mass media; and the third reason is our inability to resist the allure of narcissistic individuals.”

The result? Many leaders who are “unaware of their limitations and unjustifiably pleased with themselves, Chamorrow-Premuzic says, “They see leadership as an entitlement and they lack empathy and self-control, so they end up acting without integrity and indulging in reckless risks.”In my book, I Know Myself and Neither Do You: Why Charisma, Confidence and Pedigree Won’t Take You Where You Want to Go, I describe in detail the leadership behaviors of two C-Suite executives that I had coached. One had a high level of self-awareness and realistic appraisal of this talents and the other’s level of self-awareness was low, and experienced relationship and productivity problems in his organization. Regrettably, there are more of the latter kind of leaders in organizations than the former, but I have seen improvements.

You can read more about the importance of accurate self-awareness and self-assessment and how to increase your level of self-awareness in my new book.

Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others