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Recent research finds evidence that optimism pays off in job hunting and promotions.
Researchers Ron Kaniel (Fuqua School of Business, Duke), Cade Massey (Yale School of Management) and David T. Robinson (Fuqua School) studied the effect of an optimistic disposition on MBA students’ job searches and then promotions in the two years after they graduated.
The bottom line? Optimists fared better than their less-optimistic peers in some important ways, the researchers report in a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. For one thing, the optimistically inclined MBA students found comparable jobs to their peers — but found them more easily, with less-intensive job searches. Even better, two years after graduation, the optimists were more likely than their less-optimistic peers to have been promoted.
Interestingly, the better job-hunting performance doesn’t appear to occur because optimists have information that might objectively lead them to believe they’ll do better. For example, when the researchers asked the MBA students about their likely salary package in their first job, the optimists tended to predict that their starting earnings would be higher than average for their peers — but optimists didn’t, in fact, end up with higher average starting salaries.
The researchers also asked the MBA students in the study to identify those students in their MBA section who were the most charismatic, the most likely to become CEO or the most optimistic — to try to see if optimistic students were optimistic because they were more personable. In general, optimists did turn out to be perceived by their peers as more charismatic — but that accounted for only a fraction (at most approximately 1/3) of their greater success in the labor market.
What’s the rest of that success attributable to? The researchers can’t say for sure, but they note that other research has suggested that people who are optimistic by disposition are good at coping with problems and flexible about trying new courses of action when needed. And, the authors point out, there’s the question of self-fulfilling prophecies.
Interestingly, the researchers note that their findings suggest that appearing to others to be optimistic if you’re not would yield some — but not all — of the job-hunting benefits of a naturally optimistic disposition.
So if you aren’t actually optimistic, you may get some of the career benefits of optimism by successfully pretending to be so! Maybe the old song “Keep Your Sunny Side Up” was right….