If you think it’s intelligence, personality or creativity, you may be wrong, according to studies discussed in a blog by the Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation.

What Makes a Good Negotiator?  Researchers found negotiators performed at a similar level from one negotiation to the next but their performance had little to do with specific personality traits. Traits that are unchangeable (gender, ethnic background and physical attractiveness) did not closely correlate to people’s scores. Other traits did matter.

1. Beliefs about negotiation.

Those who think negotiators are born with innate skills didn’t perform as well as those who think people can improve their ability to negotiate. Just being aware that your results can improve can have a positive impact on your talks.

Research also finds that those who approach negotiations with a positive attitude and high expectations tend to do better.

2. Selfishness and selflessness.

Negotiators who are the most concerned about their own outcomes achieve higher performance scores than others.

Experiments have compared “proself ” negotiators (those who focus primarily on their own outcomes) and competitors (who want to “beat” the other side) and “prosocials,” (those who focus on maximizing outcomes for both parties (maybe they’d be better off as mediators)). Several studies show,

  • Prosocials are more generous than proself toward others,
  • While in other studies proselfs made more concessions than did prosocials. They responded with concessions when their counterparts expressed disappointment with offers. These seemingly selfish negotiators furthered their self interest by increasing the odds of a resolution, which makes them look good.

3. Intelligence and creativity.

In one study, highly intelligent negotiators created more value than others, but they also claimed slightly less value for themselves.

As a result, higher intelligence didn’t significantly improve negotiators’ performance. Negotiators who scored high on creativity measures were better at uncovering innovative tradeoffs, but their overall scores did not rise above average.

These findings back up a 1998 study of individual bargaining differences which found that very smart negotiators were good at creating opportunities for joint gain but didn’t have an edge when dividing the pie of resources.

4. Sensitivity to slights.

If you criticize a negotiator’s argument or question his or her motives, you risk threatening the negotiator’s “face” or social image. Such threats to self-esteem can trigger embarrassment, anger and competitive behavior in your counterpart. Some people are more sensitive to these social slights than others.

More thin-skinned, self-conscious individuals work hard to control the way others perceive them. What happens when they negotiate?

  • As sellers in one simulation, they were twice as likely as others to declare impasse even though agreement would have benefited both sides.
  • They didn’t overreact when they played the role of buyer in the same simulation.
  • When slight-sensitive people are personally invested in negotiations, they behave competitively and are less effective.

According to this Harvard Law School piece, those who may have an edge in negotiations believe they can improve their skills over time, have a positive attitude, set high expectations, may be on the selfish side, need not be the most intelligent or creative and have thicker social skin.

For those of us who don’t have all these qualities, since negotiators are not born, they’re made, with some education, willingness to change, experience and positive attitude, improved performance could begin with your next negotiation.