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Research indicates our attitude key to others' performance
We've used the story before about the old man, sitting on a porch, who was approached by a newcomer to his town.
"What are the people like around here?" the stranger asked.
"Well, what were the people like where you came from?" the old timer responded.
"Oh, they were great -- friendly, generous, loyal. We really hated to move away," came the response.
"Well, that is what they are like around here," the man on the porch replied.
When another newcomer approached with the same question, he got the same question in return.
"Oh, they were cliquish, gossipy. You couldn't trust them. We finally had to move."
"Well, you probably shouldn't plan on staying around here long, either," said the old man.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers have confirmed what the old man in the story knew all along: Our perception of others tells as much about ourselves as it does of them.
The study asked workers to create an imaginary co-worker in their minds, place them in a series of hypothetical situations, then rate them on a range of characteristics.
They found that workers who created positive imaginary co-workers contributed more in the actual workplace, both in job performance and going above and beyond their job descriptions to help others.
"When you make up imaginary peers, they are completely a product of how you see the world," said Peter Harms, UNL assistant professor of management and the study's lead author. "Because of that we can gain betters insight into your perceptual biases," he said. "That tells us a lot about how you see the world, how you interpret events and what your expectations of others are."
Researchers found that those who saw co-workers as exhibiting proactive behaviors and bouncing back from failures were the ones who were actually happier and more productive in their real-life work.
The value of having a positive attitude is nothing new, but the study explores a new way of accurately measuring the benefits -- "people are typically unwilling or unable to make accurate self appraisals," according to Harms.
"We've known that workplace relations are a self-fulfilling prophecy for some time," Harms said. "If a manager believes that their workers are lazy and incompetent, they will elicit those patterns in their employees.
"It's hard to be motivated and enthusiastic for someone you know doesn't think of you very highly. But most people don't want to disappoint someone who sincerely believes in them."
Of course, there are difficult people and situations where no amount of positive attitude can help.
But like the newcomer in town, what we expect from other people can make all the difference.