Streams of Consciousness

Streams of Consciousness

The scoop on how we think, feel and act

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


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?

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

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