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What You Need to Succeed—and How to Find Out If You Have It

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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productive work environment

Courtesy of wovox via Flickr.

Whether you succeed at work may depend on many factors—intelligence, empathy, self-control, talent and persistence, to name a few. But one determinant may outweigh many of these: how you perceive those around you. New research suggests that your own ability to get things done—not to mention your success in non-work relationships—is highly correlated with how you see others. Are your coworkers capable and kind, or are they, dare I say, incompetent jerks?

It turns out that such opinions are tied to a key component of achievement called psychological capital, a mixture of efficacy (self-confidence), resilience (you believe you can bounce back from setbacks), hope (you believe you can achieve your goals) and optimism (you expect good things to happen in the future). As a concept, psychological capital reflects our capacity to overcome obstacles and push ourselves to pursue our ambitions. Not surprisingly, scoring high on this measure is linked to markers of success: being promoted, winning awards, popularity with peers, stability of marriage and even longevity.

Youth looking confident

Confidence (efficacy). Courtesy of michael.melewski via Flickr.

Given the power of this trait, psychologists—and employers—want to measure it. After all, a prospective employee with a lot of psychological capital is likely to do well on the job and thus, be a smart hire. Individuals might like to know how much of it they have. (I am curious about my own stockpile.) It is difficult to intuit, even if you think you know yourself fairly well, because you have little sense of how you compare with others. “People are often unaware of what is normal,” says Peter Harms, a psychologist and management scholar at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. If you are Oscar the Grouch, you assume that mindset is typical. If you are a Polly-Anna, you suppose your sunny outlook is the norm.

Yet to get at this trait, you can’t ask people the obvious questions, because people know how to answer them. Even if they want to be honest—and they may not if they are applying for a job—people fool themselves all the time. “If I ask you about you, you’ll probably say something nice about yourself. Even in an experiment, people will try to make themselves look good,” says Harms. “You need to take the focus off the person.” So Harms and University of Nebraska management scholar Fred Luthans decided to subtly probe the concept by asking people how they view others.

Hope sign

Courtesy of *USB* via Flickr.

Rather than using real people, some of whom may actually be jerks, they asked subjects to conjure up imaginary people, on whom they could impose their own schema and mindsets. The result is a world they have completely made up. “It’s all a projection,” Harms explains, a kind of ethereal Rorschach test. And it seems to work.

In the test, people create stories in their head about their imaginary someone in response to a positive, negative and neutral prompt. These are: the person has a new job (positive); the person makes a mistake at work (negative); the person talks to their supervisor (neutral). Then the participants answer questions, on a 7-point scale, about the made-up character. Is he feeling confident and self-assured in his ability? Does she believe she can bounce back from setbacks? Does he believe he can accomplish his goal? Does she expect good things to happen in the future? The answers, which target the four components of psychological capital, range from -3, which means the opposite is true of the character, to +3, which indicates the statement is very true of this made-up individual.

Optimism. Courtesy of seeveeaar via Flickr.

Harms and Luthans compared the answers, which they collected from 278 adults who worked in a variety of professions, to measures of job satisfaction, “citizenship” deeds such as helping coworkers, ability to complete tasks, and tendency to engage in deviant work behaviors like cheating on time sheets. They found that a high positive score on this new implicit test was significantly correlated with high grades on job satisfaction, citizenship and task performance as well as a lower mark on counterproductive work behaviors. In fact, the imaginary-person test worked better than the traditional self-report measure of psychological capital. “We end up being better able to predict workplace performance with these projected measures,” Harms says.

plant growing out of wall

Resilience. Courtesy of AirAn via Flickr.

Take a manager who believes others are intrinsically motivated. She will give her employees the autonomy and freedom they need to flourish. By contrast, one who micromanages because he believes his charges are incompetent and lazy will end up with a demoralized team. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Harms says.

The test should work well for job interviews, too. It is not cumbersome to administer and applicants don’t know how to fake their answers. “With an imaginary person, people don’t know whether they are supposed to be positive, so they respond honestly,” says Harms.

boy and girl crossing finish line

Courtesy of USACE-Sacramento District via Flickr.

In addition to predicting on-the-job performance, implicit positive perceptions of others are associated with greater satisfaction with groups to which we belong, less cynicism and greater popularity among your peers. Such perceptions and worldviews are also likely to impact health and marriage. If you associate the gym with drudgery, you are unlikely to exercise. If you don’t trust your spouse or you don’t believe in happy endings, you may be less keen on your relationship.

In general, knowing how positively you see people and situations could be used for self-improvement. A counselor could inform you that the way you see the world is not healthy and provide exercises to improve your outlook. So keep in mind that you may, in fact, be the author of your own misery. Ask yourself, Harms suggests, “Maybe not everyone else is a jerk. Maybe it’s me?”

Up next week: How do you improve your outlook—and boost your psychological capital?

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. candide 1:03 pm 02/8/2012

    Is everything in life a self-fulfilling prophecy?

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  2. 2. tawarren 1:46 pm 02/8/2012

    “…measures of job satisfaction, “citizenship” deeds such as helping coworkers, ability to complete tasks, and tendency to engage in deviant work behaviors like cheating on time sheets. They found that a high positive score on this new implicit test was significantly correlated with high grades on job satisfaction, citizenship and task performance as well as a lower mark on counterproductive work behaviors.”

    Key phrase is correlated. This study does not determine if attitudes are causing behavior or if behavior is causing attitudes or it something else is involved in causing the behaviors and attitudes.

    Employers that focused a little more on creating environments that foster job satisfaction might find that more of their employees perform better. Merely finding new employees that are already happy at their current job is not going to translate into a workforce that is satisfied if they hire into a negative working environment.

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  3. 3. kenlbear 2:15 pm 02/8/2012

    No amount of pop psychology can substitute for individual competence. Take a chance, make a provisional hire, see if they can do the job. Hire the psych testers, see if they can perform at something useful and save the world a lot of unnecessary crap.

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  4. 4. ACF3000 4:42 pm 02/8/2012

    How you are being treated may determine how you see the people around you. There have to be reasons for thoughts. It is pragmatism trying to force certain realities into existence by a simple act of will. For example, whether you should be optimistic or pessimistic should be a function of what kind of creature you are. Given a specific task, it is important whether you are a mouse or an elephant (to illustratre my point). There is no reason to be otimistic if one lacks the needed competencies. It’s therefore important to train what you need to be optimistic or confident about.

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  5. 5. Petra 5:17 pm 02/8/2012

    I disagree with the assessment that stability in marriage is a good benchmark for weighing personal success as persons who are single devote more time and attention to employment endeavors than married persons who must divide their time between job and other responsibilities.

    Yet you excluded persons who devote time to community activities such as volunteering and maintaining seats on boards of directors or others who volunteer for major endeavors in disaster relief. For those who have been and done or are doing, they make time to advance the lives of others and in doing so it improves their attitudes positively.

    Though in the end we could easily state “As you think, so you become.”

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  6. 6. jinchoung 11:40 pm 02/8/2012

    “is everything a self-fulfilling prophecy?”

    no. absolutely not. and the times that it holds true is when other people reflect back at you the signals you’re sending out – i.e. it’s social and pertains to society. most of the rest of the universe doesn’t give a damn how positive or negative you are.

    wow this article is shockingly bad and the “research” is ludicrous.

    in fact, it can set up a situation where a person who is surrounded by those who are dangerously incompetent simply can’t acknowledge that reality for fear of lowering their psychological capital.

    most people are NOT tremendously capable and masters of their disciplines… most people are AVERAGE.

    sure, if you’re at fortune 500 company, it might be that the people around actually deserve to be there.

    but if you think everyone around you at the minimum wage summer job is a captain of industry, that’s not a testament to your psychological capital but your dangerously tenuous grasp of reality.

    so no candide – most of reality cares very very little what we think about it.

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  7. 7. iwickelgren 9:34 am 02/9/2012

    tawarren: Good point about employers. Certainly the work environment can make a huge difference. That said, personality matters, too. And the projected test, which does not depend on a particular job situation or specific individuals, is an attempt to get at those more stable traits.

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  8. 8. iwickelgren 9:39 am 02/9/2012

    kenlbear and ACF3000: Absolutely agree that competence matters and that it is tightly linked with confidence. But the two can be separated, and the causation goes in both directions. That is, in the same way that competence can drive confidence so can self-confidence drive competence (by motivating someone to put in effort). So I don’t agree that assessing attitude is irrelevant. What if, after all, your employee needs to learn something new on the job?

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  9. 9. iwickelgren 9:46 am 02/9/2012

    Petra: Stability of marriage is only relevant to those who are married. If you do not engage in a pursuit, then your success in that pursuit cannot be evaluated. I did not intend to compare single versus married persons on any dimension. I would tend agree that single people usually have more time for their jobs, and could thus spend more time working if they chose to do so.

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  10. 10. iwickelgren 9:50 am 02/9/2012

    jinchoung: The test was designed to detect personality traits independent of any particular work environment. Nobody is saying that everyone–or anyone–should remain happy in the midst of true chaos and incompetence. But some people look for the best in people while other people tend to seek negative explanations for the same circumstances. Those with a more positive outlook tend to do better.

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  11. 11. N a g n o s t i c 10:45 am 02/9/2012

    George Patton, Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, J. Edgar Hoover, Ross Perot, Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Howard Hughes, Henry Ford, Leslie Groves and Leona Helmsly have all run large organizations successfully – and every one was or is a complete and utter jerk.

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  12. 12. clearlycriticalthinking 11:09 am 02/9/2012

    Although I am against “New Age Bullies” that place blame on someone for their bad outcomes that they did not cause, this is a good blog post. I read it to be saying that avoidance of confirmation bias and determinism about others traits are useful approaches. Reality testing is helpful within accurate contexts. I have only met one person that truly is perennially disappointed in others. He was very intelligent as well, and it was very sad to see a wall being put up by him against all others he communicated with. This caused him to live in a continuous retaliation against others, including me. I have more often encountered people to mistake the motives for others as negative. This seems to limit teamwork between people.

    Conversely a total “polyanna” attitude can increase risk for team failure as well. Regarding everyone and everything on a case-by-case basis is the only thing that seems to be flexible enough yet positive enough to inspire teamwork. Sometimes anger is a mobilizer, but it takes quite a bit of self discipline to keep the anger from turning to pessimism. Just world beliefs waste opportunities. Blaming external sources is not always wrong, and attributing success to internal attitudinal superiority is not always accurate.

    I say this with real experience, because I was on a feeding tube to save my life for three years and nearly died several times. I can’t say that it was because of my attitude alone (internal factors) that I am still here. There are definitely people that misunderstand the logistics of my day-to-day life. I am realistic enough to know that it is not their problem, but it is necessary to think one is part of nature, and it is natural to mistake others motives as negative if they don’t know the details. So viewing others as “against me” is inaccurate. Everyone is just trying to survive. Giving others permission to compete, while giving myself permission to compete is the only solution that has worked for me. Maintenance of long-term relationships is a good indicator but not an absolute. There are many roads to resilience.

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  13. 13. Kapitano 1:59 pm 02/9/2012

    “the person has a new job (positive) [...] the person talks to their supervisor (neutral)”

    Since when? There’s a lot of assumptions behind those notions, which tell us more about the psychology of the experimenter than the subjects.

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  14. 14. postfuture 11:47 pm 02/9/2012

    Petra’s remark:’disagree with the assessment that stability in marriage is a good benchmark for weighing personal success as persons who are single devote more time and attention to employment endeavors …’
    My personal experience – single people have to constantly look for a sex partner. Some of them spend a lot of time on match making websites even at work place, they are always in the midst of some relationship drama, or in depression, etc. Married (or in a stable relationship) people are much more predictable, reliable, psychologically stable, have better job performance and faster career.

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  15. 15. sudhakaran 12:29 pm 02/10/2012

    dear madam,regarding creativity what i have to say is simply this.[1]very deep thought regarding the subject in which one is engaged in research.[2]the unconscious mind shall take care of thinking and when the process is finished,the final product in the form of AHA INSIGHT shall be projected in conscious state of mind.that is my experience.[G.SUDHAKARAN,author of gr-qc/0106029 in]TO GO VERY DEEP IN TO MEDITATION ONE CAN DO RESEARCH ON RAJA YOGA[complete works of swami vivekananda]this critical view may kindly be exhibited for the public.

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  16. 16. Walterwillson 5:31 am 02/11/2012


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  17. 17. twobyfour 2:53 pm 02/16/2012

    While I enjoy a positive workplace as much as anyone, I have to point out that the characteristics you associate with psychological capital are also associated with excessive risk taking. I would argue that excessive risk taking has brought down many more companies than negative workplaces. As Daniel Kahneman has said, companies are decision-making machines that require a good mix of the risk adverse and the risk taking to operate best. Perhaps a more valuable line of research would be to find what that optimum mix is and how to achieve it, rather than trying to turn us all into sunny, smiling Barbie and Ken dolls.

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  18. 18. BGriffin 2:41 pm 06/9/2012

    This seems like an affirmation of Dunning Kruger effect.

    While it could be useful in screening job applicants (for general competency), individuals would be much better of spending time training to gain competence in specific areas of need rather than spending time training themselves to look at the bright side and only notice peoples positive aspects.

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  19. 19. BAJMBA 5:17 pm 06/22/2012

    Thank you for a very insightful post.

    I mentioned this post in my new article this week: Why Optimism Matters for Student Success – Now and After Graduation

    I believe students need optimism now more than ever.
    Dr. J

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