Eccles Research: Workplace optimism may be overrated

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Eccles Research: Workplace optimism may be overrated

Ever wonder how important workplace optimism is for performance?

Some seem to think a positive, optimistic attitude is essential, while others think being more realistic and accurate about a situation is a key factor.

Elizabeth Tenney, assistant professor of management at the David Eccles School of Business, decided to find out just how important a role optimism plays.

“I am interested in the question of when do people value optimism and think it is a really useful or good mindset for people to have, and when do they think that other mindsets might be better,” Tenney said. “I kept hearing about how optimistic mindset was so great, but then you think about all the times that striving for accuracy might be better for the individual.”

In the end, her study found that optimism didn’t help a person’s performance as much as people thought it would in some instances, such as performance on a math test. But study subjects who were tasked with hunting for the elusive Waldo in “Where’s Waldo” searches and told they had special ability to do so ended up searching for longer than those who were told they didn’t have a great chance at finding Waldo.

“We concluded that optimism seems to help persistence but not necessarily performance as much as people would expect,” Tenney said.

Two places where people might think that optimism is especially important are when leaders need to motivate their employees and when entrepreneurs pitch their business to potential investors.

“People are going to think that you need that optimism in order to perform, and they will expect your optimism and value it, but how much that optimism actually ends up helping you, well that’s another question,” Tenney said.

Her research was published in the paper “(Too) Optimistic About Optimism: The Belief that Optimism Improves Performance” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The paper was co-authored with Jennifer M. Logg and Don A. Moore at the University of California, Berkeley.

Listen to the podcast for more detail on her findings, or read the transcript below.


Eccles School: Welcome to the Eccles Extra Podcast, I’m your host Sheena McFarland. We all know what it is like to be excited about a project we’re working on at our jobs, and we are optimistic about the outcome. But just how much does our attitude affect our performance? We will find out today as we are joined by Elizabeth Tenney, assistant Professor of Management at the David Eccles School of Business. She co-wrote the paper “(Too) Optimistic About Optimism: The Belief that Optimism Improves Performance,” which has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Dr. Tenney, thank you for joining us today.

Elizabeth Tenney: Thanks for having me.

Eccles School: First, tell me a little bit about your research.

Elizabeth Tenney: Well, I am interested in the question of when do people value optimism and think it is a really useful or good mindset for people to have, and when do they think that other mindsets might be better. I kept hearing about how optimistic mindset was so great, but then if you think about all the times that striving for accuracy might be better for the individual … A good example of this is you can imagine someone standing on the edge of a crevasse, looking over and contemplating “Can I make it over this or can’t I?” For that person, do you really want that person to be optimistic about their chances of making it over this crevasse, or do you want them to be accurate about their chances?

So, I think people are going to want different things depending on what they are thinking of for that person. If they are thinking about that person making the choice about whether they should jump or shouldn’t they, then maybe you want that person to be accurate. They are in a deliberation phase, they’re going to need good accurate inputs. Once that person has made the choice, there’s no turning back — he or she is going to jump over that crevasse, that’s when people start thinking well we better make sure that person is optimistic because they are going over and they might need that optimism for their performance or for their jump.

Eccles School: That makes a lot of really good sense and I’m thinking you probably didn’t evaluate people looking over a crevasse. So, tell me a little bit about how you did end up testing your research question.

Elizabeth Tenney: In the first few studies, we had our participants read some stories. And so for example, one of the stories was about a person who was going to undergo heart surgery, and after the surgery that person was going to have to be in rehab, and the rehab was going to contribute to the success of the surgery. And so, we asked our participants what mindset do you think this person should have, should that person be optimistic about their chance of success or accurate or pessimistic. And then in a different version of that same study, we emphasized well you know this person is going to have to make some financial decisions based on the success of the surgery, how optimistic, realistic or pessimistic would you want this person to be now.

We found that our participants were like “Well if this person is making choices then OK, we would prescribe accuracy for that person but if this person is – once they made up their mind or if they just need motivation to go to rehab — then OK we would prescribe optimism.”

What people wanted actually depended on the situation. And it seemed like there was this strong preference where people prescribed optimism for someone who needed motivation to perform. So the next thing we did was we were like, well, does that optimism actually matter? Will optimism help that person perform better?

Eccles School: So did optimism help their performance?

Elizabeth Tenney: So, great question. It turns out that optimism didn’t help performance as much as people thought it would. So for certain tasks that we used– we had people take a math test for example. Before they took the test, we told some people “Look you’re going to do really great on this test” – so we were making them optimistic about their chance of success. And for other people, we didn’t give them that same optimistic boost. What happened was those people who were optimistic about their chance of success on the math test actually did equally well to the people who weren’t optimistic even though we had a group of predictors, and our predictors thought that the optimism would really matter.

So it seems like optimism wasn’t super helpful for performance on a math test, at least when we tried to give it to people as opposed to it occurring naturally. The one place that we found that optimism did help performance was on a visual search task. So you may remember the puzzle book you read when you were a kid called Where’s Waldo? And so we had our participants do a series of 12 Waldo puzzles where they had to find Waldo, and we told some of them “Hey, you’ve got really good Waldo-finding ability based on your pre-test performance” and we told some other people “Oh, you’re not so good at finding Waldo.” And they actually didn’t find many more Waldos in the optimistic condition, but they did look longer, and I don’t think they were being inefficient. I think eventually they probably would have found him more, but basically what we concluded from that was that optimism seems to help persistence but not necessarily performance as much as people would expect.

Eccles School: The Where’s Waldo finding sounds like a really good time, sorry I couldn’t get to be a part of the experiment. So can you tell me a little bit about how this research can be applied to the workforce?

Elizabeth Tenney: OK, I have two points that I think could be helpful for the workforce. One is for leaders or managers, they should really pay attention to whether it’s a situation that calls for deliberation or if it is a situation that calls for motivating others to try to implement some course of action. If it’s time for deliberation then the followers would really value accurate input and advice, but when they need motivation because now it’s time to move, they will value positivity and optimism from their leader.

Also, second point is say you are an entrepreneur or a leader and you want to win people over, like you want to win over some support, then you should be really optimistic because people are going to think that you need that optimism in order to perform, and they will expect your optimism and they’ll value it. But how much that optimism actually ends up helping you well that’s another question.

Eccles School: Excellent, well thank you so much for sharing your insights.

Elizabeth Tenney: Well, thanks. This was fun.

Eccles School: I am Sheena McFarland, and this has been the Eccles Extra Podcast.

2017-12-20T10:08:38+00:00 April 8th, 2015|

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