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.

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Tue, April 19, 2011

CIO — 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.

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