KSAOs/Individual Differences

‘Keep Your Chin Up’ at Work

Surviving the various burdens of one’s work and personal lives can be difficult for anyone, not even counting the “Great Recession” of the last two years which has been so stressful for so many people. Morale of employees ranging from CEOs to interns has dropped precipitously in line with the fall in consumer confidence and rising unemployment. However, seeing the “bright side of things” and having hope for the future can relate to meaningful positive outcomes at a personal and an organizational level. These outcomes include:
  • Reduced distress
  • Reduced burnout
  • Greater affective commitment
  • Greater job satisfaction
Optimism even seems to play a role in increasing performance. The good news is that these positive effects are not limited just to those individuals who have optimistic personalities. Rather, the effects appear to be greatest when people experience more situational, day-to-day type optimism.

Optimistic Thinking

Optimistic people tend to demonstrate a thinking process that attributes their successes and achievements to their own personal, consistent behavior. They also attribute set-backs or failures to transient causes that can be changed in the future. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to think that good outcomes in their life are random events that are out of their control, while bad outcomes are the result of an inherent personal defect. How people attribute cause to successes and failures is important for a variety of mental and emotional reasons, but it is also significant for how people approach challenges: those who believe they have the power to “make good things happen” are more likely to put in greater effort to accomplish their goals. Optimism exists at both a trait level and a state level. Traits are personality-related, as they are generally stable over time and influence thoughts, feelings, and behavior across a variety of situations. States are generally short-term and often influenced by context. Thus trait optimists tend to frequently look for the positives in things and do so in many different domains of their lives. People who experience state optimism look on the bright side in more specific and short-term situations, for instance with personal relationships or with their jobs. Thus, people who are generally optimists can at times be pessimistic, and vice-versa.

Optimism and Work Outcomes

Optimism, state and trait, has been linked to experiencing less negative outcomes, such as symptoms of psychological distress and burnout. Burnout includes feelings of emotional exhaustion, emotional/personal detachment, and loss of confidence in one’s abilities. Beyond an association with a reduction in troublesome outcomes, optimism has been demonstrated to predict greater affective commitment to one’s organization. Thus, more optimistic people may want to remain with their organizations more than less optimistic people do. Further, more optimistic people tend to enjoy greater job satisfaction. Finally, some evidence indicates that higher optimism is related to increased task performance. A key finding is that state optimism emerges as a consistently significant predictor of these outcomes, while trait optimism does not consistently predict them. These results have been found using techniques designed to isolate the specific contribution of state versus trait optimism. Also, the results for state optimism were found regardless of a person’s predisposition to positive and negative affectivity.

Implications for Practice

Based on these results, we at the DeGarmo Group offer the following advice.
  • Because the evidence indicates state optimism is more of a driver of important work outcomes than trait optimism, it may be more important to focus on developing work and organizational contexts that promote optimistic thinking rather than trying to select generally optimistic individuals as employees.
  • Strive to incorporate positive thinking and personal efficacy into the work climate and culture.
  • Emphasize that employees and managers can achieve success through persistence and that set-backs are temporary and can be overcome. Work to remove barriers to success that result in set-backs, such as poor communication, deficient knowledge and skills, or unproductive organizational strategies.
  • Finally, promote hope in the organization by encouraging forward-looking thinking that focuses on building belief in a better, more desirable future.

Donnie Johnson


This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Kluemper, D. H., Little, L. M., & DeGroot, T. (2009). State or trait: Effects of state optimism on job-related outcomes. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30, 209-231.