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Beware the Pessimistic Supervisor

By Elaine Cassel

Performance evaluations have become routine in most workplaces. New research suggests that when you are evaluated, you have reason to worry if your supervisor is a pessimist.

In a study published in the January 2001 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, University of Ohio researcher Gifford Weary found that among 194 participants who were asked to assess the intelligence of an 11-year-old boy after watching a videotaped performance task, pessimists rated the subject as being less intelligent than did the optimists.

After participants were rated for optimism and pessimism using a scale designed to measure those traits, experimental groups of pessimists and optimists were asked to memorize an eight-digit number before watching the videotaped performance. They were told they would be asked to recall the number after they completed their assessment. Pessimists' ratings of the subject's intelligence were negatively influenced by the memory task, while those of optimists were not. There was no significant difference in the ratings of pessimists and optimists who were not given the memory task.

The researchers concluded that pessimists can temper their negative outlook when judging others -- but only if their minds are focused on the task and not distracted with other thoughts. Why the disparity in judgment under the different conditions? Weary hypothesizes that when distracted and not focusing on the boy's performance, pessimists were not fully attending to the boy's performance and reacted in their default mode, one of negative expectations. Pessimists not distracted rated the boy more in accordance with his actual performance.

These results suggest that employees with pessimistic supervisors could be rated lower in a performance evaluation if the boss is distracted by other tasks or problems. This is bad news for people who work in a fast-paced environment where supervisors are under time and performance pressures.

Of course, having an optimistic supervisor might not be the ticket to a good evaluation either. A previous negative evaluation by even a cheerful boss might set the stage for the reprise of a low rating. It's the halo effect in reverse. Sometimes you are only as good as your last evaluation.

But back to the pessimistic supervisor. What can you do to increase your odds of being fairly judged? If this research is any indication, make sure you have your supervisor's full attention and try to schedule the evaluation for a time when the boss is less hurried—and less harried.

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