The Washington Post

Are you a workplace Pollyanna?

Look on the bright side of things at work? You could be setting yourself up for frustration.

A new study from researchers at Stanford University and East Carolina University finds that “disaffected Pollyannas” who don’t get the salaries they expect are more likely to have switched companies than those with less positive views of their prospects. Eight years into their careers, these sunny folks also have lower job satisfaction and even less overall happiness with their lives.

The paper, which was published in the September issue of the Journal of Organizational and Occupational Psychology, studied 132 MBA students, rating them on a scale that measures positive or negative “affect” and asking them about their salary expectations over the course of their careers. As the folks over at BPS Occupational Digest point out, the data showed that for every one-unit increase in positive perspective, participants expected an additional $100,000 increase in lifetime earnings. One can always hope, right?

But when the researchers checked in with the candidates four years later, they found that those with high “positive affects” had gone through an average of four jobs, compared with just two for their less optimistic peers. That’s not surprising, in a sense—with higher salary expectations, they believed they could make more. “They are more willing to believe the grass is greener elsewhere, and more able to make that step successfully, due to better social networks and an interview advantage due to infectious positive affect at interview,” BPS explains.

Eight years later, the difference was still stark. For those with more negative outlooks on life, frequent job shifts led to greater happiness. But as for those Pollyannas during their MBA days? The opposite is true. More job changes only led to more frustration.

As with seemingly all such workplace studies, there’s a level of obvious logic to all this. Higher expectations inevitably lead to more possibility for disappointment. We didn’t need three business school professors to tell us that. The authors write that “the key to finding long-term satisfaction, then, may be managing expectations, rather than pursuing unrealistic ideals.” I’m not sure we needed an eight-year study to understand this.

That said, there is a lesson here for organizations. Corporate America, in particular, tends to dote on people who don’t complain, who always say “yes,” who believe that being asked to do three people’s jobs at one time in the name of a “stretch assignment” is not only reasonable but desirable. Pollyannas, in other words, have a tendency to rise to the top. Figuring out how to manage such expectations could play a role in getting exorbitant executive pay back under control, and keeping good people from heading out the door.

Still, what I want to know doesn’t appear to have been addressed. When the eight years were up, who actually made more? Does all that job changing and dissatisfaction lead to more income? In the end, does the power of positive thinking lead to more money or less?

More from On Leadership:

How to be a great boss

What men can learn from women about leadership

Be in the know on everything we’re covering here at The Post’s On Leadership section. “Like” our page on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter:

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Post Leadership Blogger Jena McGregor: @jenamcgregor

On Leadership Editor Lillian Cunningham: @lily_cunningham

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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