Is Optimism Overrated?

Managers may prefer those with a hopeful outlook, but attitude doesn’t always translate into success

By Dana Wilkie May 1, 2015
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That peppy, cheerful person in your workplace—the one who always looks on the bright side and believes anything can be accomplished—isn’t necessarily a better performer than his more realistic, cynical or even pessimistic peers.

Nor is his work necessarily more reliable or better suited to company success.

So says a new study that found that optimism doesn’t help a person’s performance as much as people might think.

The study—(Too) Optimistic About Optimism: The Belief That Optimism Improves Performance—was published in the March 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Although the researchers broadly examined how optimism affects performance on math tests and other tasks, the findings can be applied to the workplace, said study co-author Elizabeth Tenney, assistant professor of management at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.

“People like interacting with positive, happy people, and having a good attitude surely matters in some ways at work, especially in social situations, such as interacting with co-workers, bosses and clients,” Tenney said. “But if someone has to make an important decision and is looking for accurate information—from their advisors or employees or salespeople—they will likely value accurate information over anything else. Optimism could lead to unnecessary risks.”

In their study, researchers defined optimism as having a positive outlook on the future or expecting something good to happen.

Noting that North American culture is “uniquely optimistic regarding the power of positive thinking for success,” the researchers wrote that “one common reason people prefer optimism is they believe that optimism will make desirable outcomes more likely. Specifically, they believe that having an optimistic outlook will improve performance when working toward a goal, which then increases the chance of success.”

It was that belief that researchers sought to test.

In one experiment, some study participants were told that researchers believed they would score highly on an upcoming test, while others were given a more pessimistic message. In reality, both groups performed about equally well on the test.

Study participants “indicated a belief in the power of optimism to improve performance, but when

we put those beliefs to the test, reality did not measure up to their expectations,” the researchers wrote.

Participants who took [various tests] did not actually perform better when they were led to be more optimistic, although other participants predicted that they would. Therefore … optimistic forecasts of future performance did not actually produce that performance.”

In another experiment, participants were asked to find Waldo in a Where’s Waldo? book. Participants in the optimistic group spent longer trying to complete the task than those in the more pessimistic group, who gave up sooner. Although optimism seemed to help with persistence, “the amount of persistence wasn’t enough to turn participants in the optimism group into significantly better performers,” Tenney said. “They found Waldo about as often as participants in the pessimism group.”

When persistence matters in the workplace, she said, optimism may help, but “the truth is that talent or skill often matter more than persistence.”

That said, the researchers found that optimistic mindsets are desirable for business executives or leaders who may need to motivate employees. “What this could mean for the workplace is if a manager has decided on a course of action, and is ready to implement it, then her team will expect that manager to be optimistic about her decision and the outcome,” Tenney said. “People believe that optimism is useful for motivation.”

Wrote the researchers: “It would be reckless to assume that optimism does not ever contribute to performance. If optimism gets people to try activities at which they succeed or try healthful foods that they enjoy, that is clearly beneficial. Optimism may also get people to try harder, longer. Indeed, there are large literatures that document numerous positive effects of optimistic beliefs on life outcomes. However, the benefits of optimism on test performance may be completely overwhelmed by other, bigger factors such as actual competence or ability.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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