Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Positive pollyannas more frustrated by unmet expectations

A tendency to view the world positively yields many benefits, such as higher wellbeing and a sense of personal effectiveness that gets you ahead in life. However, according to a recent article in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, this sunny view of life brings with it certain workplace expectations – and when they aren't fulfilled, it can spell trouble. Behold the “disaffected pollyannas”.

Researchers Olivia O'Neill, Laura Stanley, and Charles O'Reilly were interested in the career expectations and choices made by individuals with high “trait positive affect” (PA). They recruited 132 participants from a full-time MBA course, who sat an assessment centre where they completed a Positive and Negative Affect Scale and reported what they expected their highest lifetime salary to be. The data showed that PA results in confidence about salary, with every one-unit increase in PA associated with a $100,000 increase in expected earnings. High hopes, but what if they aren't met?

Four years later, 105 of the participants responded to a follow-up survey probing salary levels and frequency of moving organisation. High PA individuals turned out to be far more responsive to low salary; at a standard deviation below average, they shifted through an average of four jobs, compared to two for their low-PA counterparts. This higher turnover was expected, as frustration of their higher salary expectations is more likely to lead to doubting their fit at the organisation. Moreover, 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 (similar to the rapport advantage described here).

Measures of job and life satisfaction at a final follow-up eight years on showed that for low PA individuals, more frequent job shifts led to more satisfaction. The notion is that shopping around means that over time you get a sense of what is realistic and make your peace with what a reasonable job constitutes. But for high PA, the reverse was true, with more job shifts making them more frustrated, bemoaning the absence of the perfect job they are destined for.

High PA individuals can be a positive feature in organisations, but this research shows that they can be open to disappointment, affecting their prospects in the organisation and their feelings on life. The authors conclude that “the key to finding long-term satisfaction, then, may be managing expectations, rather than pursuing unrealistic ideals.”

ResearchBlogging.orgO'Neill, O., Stanley, L., & O'Reilly, C. (2011). Disaffected Pollyannas: The influence of positive affect on salary expectations, turnover, and long-term satisfaction Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 84 (3), 599-617 DOI: 10.1348/096317910X500801


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