Why Your Negative Outlook is Killing Your Career

Bad news, pessimists: A growing body of scientific research reveals an indisputable connection between a positive attitude and career success. Take these five actions to start seeing your glass as half-full and watch your productivity and prospects rise, experts say.

All of us cynical, sardonic, too-smart-for-our-own-and-everyone-else's-good IT professionals who think we can get ahead in our careers based purely on our blazing intellects will surely question the following stat: Only 25 percent of job success stems from intelligence and technical skills, according to research conducted in the field of emotional intelligence.

"Intelligence does predict some success, but it doesn't predict even the majority of it," says corporate strategy consultant Shawn Achor, a former Harvard psychology professor and author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work (Crown Business 2010). "You can take individuals of equal levels of intelligence, and you find there's dramatic variance in their success rates."

If career success isn't primarily a function of intelligence, then what causes it? Three factors likely to revile our sick, scornful hearts are larger indicators of success, according to Achor: optimism, social support and whether we view stress as an opportunity or threat.

I know what you're thinking: Of course researchers in the namby-pamby field of emotional intelligence would conclude that looking on the bright side (seriously?) and friendships (gag us with a spoon!) play more important roles in our career achievements than measurable qualities like intelligence and hard skills. But, in fact, a growing body of scientific research reveals an indisputable connection between a positive mental attitude and that ever-elusive, most subjective notion we call success.

"Our brains are designed to work better when they're in a positive state as opposed to a negative or neutral one," says Achor, citing numerous studies on positive psychology. "We find that when people are positive, it raises their productivity rate by 31 percent compared to when they're in a negative state of mind. Sales people sell 37 percent more than their negative counterparts. We know that doctors, when they're positive, perform diagnoses 19 percent more accurately."

The reason that our brains function more effectively when we're in a positive state is largely chemical. When our brains are positive, they produce dopamine, the neurochemical related to pleasure, says Achor. Dopamine makes us feel good, activates the learning sensors in our brains and gives our minds more energy. Consequently, positive brains see more possibilities and productivity rises.

"The brain is like a single processor in a computer with a finite amount of resources for experiencing the world," adds Achor. "If your brain is using those resources to scan for negatives or for visualizing all the problems that could arise, then your brain has fewer resources leftover for doing actual work."

By contrast, when you're in a positive state of mind, your brain devotes its resources more fully to the task at hand.

The good news for all of us hopeless pessimists is that we can improve our outlook—and our happiness—by engaging in certain habits that promote positivity and optimism, according to Achor. And in so doing, we can increase our productivity and be more successful. So in the spirit of spoiling a sour mood, here are Achor's five tips.

1. Practice gratefulness. Every morning for 21 days, write down three things for which you are grateful. The list needs to be different every day. Achor had 200 tax audit managers at KPMG do this during the 2009 tax season, which was expected to be the worst tax season on record. After 21 days, Achor measured their emotional outlook using various psychological assessment tools and found that their levels of optimism rose.

"Two days after the [positive psychology] training, they felt significantly higher levels of happiness and job satisfaction," says Achor. "Four months later, the group we exposed to positive psychology had significantly higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction than the control group. We innoculated them from the stresses of the worst tax season."

2. Be social. Achor says that when he's researched happiness inside companies, he's found that the greatest predictor of happiness and success during a challenging time is one's social support network.

"The correlation [between success and social support] is .7, which is significantly higher than the correlation between smoking and cancer," says Achor. "The problem is that when most people get stressed, they divorce themselves from their social support network: They eat lunch at their desk. They stop sending nice e-mails or talking to people in the hallways. They spend less time with family and friends."

Consequently, he adds, their stress levels skyrocket and their productivity burns out.

Meanwhile, the people who are the most productive or optimistic in organizations increase their "social investment"—the amount they invest in their social support network—when they get stressed, notes Achor. "This doesn't mean they're spending hours with friends when they're really busy at work, but they make sure they connect to their social support network."

3. Praise others. Another way to increase your social investment is by making a concerted effort to be kind to those around you. While consulting at Adobe, Achor encouraged the senior leadership team to write one positive e-mail each morning for 21 days when they opened their inboxes, praising or thanking someone for good work. Achor says the levels of social support the executives felt increased because the act of writing these e-mails each day made them realize that they had 21 people with whom they just connected.

The other advantageous effect of sending these e-mails was that they created a positive ripple effect. Seeing a nice e-mail made the recipients feel good about themselves, which made them more likely to be complimentary to others. "It changed the social script so that more people were praising one another for their accomplishments," notes Achor.

"That e-mail only takes two minutes to write," he adds. "It's just a two sentence e-mail. You can increase social investment without spending a lot of time."

4. Apply the 20 second rule. Breaking bad habits (like procrastinating) or starting good habits (like learning to play a musical instrument) are hard because they require a specific kind of energy—activation energy—to get started.

"This is why we procrastinate—because we wait for our stress level to rise higher than the energy it takes to start the task," says Achor.

You can make it easier to break bad habits and adopt positive ones by decreasing the amount of activation energy needed to start the new habit.

Enter the 20 second rule: To break a bad habit, add 20 seconds to the time it takes to engage in that bad habit. For example, if your bad habit is checking news sites or stock quotes instead of starting your work, make it more time consuming for you to access those sites by removing those sites from your browser bookmarks or by deleting your saved passwords to those sites, says Achor.

Similarly, adds Achor, "If there's a report you need to work on, put it right on your desk. If there are forms you need to fill out, put a pen right on top of the forms. You're decreasing the activation energy necessary to start that task.

"If you decrease the activation energy just slightly, your brain magnifies the change, making it easier to create a positive habit. The goal of the 20 second rule is to tilt the path of least resistance toward a positive habit."

5. Set small goals. It's fine to set daring goals, such as becoming a CIO by age 35, running a marathon or losing 60 lbs., but there's a drawback: Goals that are too big paralyze you. They literally shut off your brain, says Achor.

Here's what happens to your brain when faced with a daunting goal or project:

The amygdala, the part of the brain that responds to fear and threats, hijacks the "thinker" part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, says Achor. The amygdala steals resources from the prefrontal cortex, the creative part of the brain that makes decisions and sees possibilities.

"We watch this on a brain scan," he says. "The more the amygdala lights up, the less the prefrontal cortex does."

Breaking a big goal into smaller, more achievable goals prevents the fear part of your brain from hijacking your thinking cap and gives you victories.

"When you see you've been successful, your brain believes your action matters," adds Achor.

Meridith Levinson covers Careers, Project Management and Outsourcing for CIO.com. Follow Meridith on Twitter @meridith. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Meridith at mlevinson@cio.com.

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