RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
IN HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

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Knight, M. & Elsaid, A. M. M. K. (2006). Optimism: The Significance of Individual Contribution and Perception, Research and Practice in Human Resource Management, 14(2), 61-73.

Optimism: The Significance of Individual Contribution and Perception

Michael Knight & Abdel Moneim M. K. Elsaid

Abstract

Authors from multiple disciplines have discussed the importance of personality attributes and the effect these attributes have on group experiences and the overlying impact of personality on organisational performance. A total of 166 five-person teams performing case analysis using managerial cases were used in this study. Significant statistical results suggest that the perception of a group’s optimism is a suitable indicator in measuring a group’s optimism. Results further demonstrate that individual perception is significant to the actual mean contributions of optimism and the perception of a group’s optimism is significantly similar to the group mean level of optimism. Implications of the findings of this study provide value for the hiring practices of domestic as well as international organisations.

Introduction

Managers rarely make truly objective perceptions (Rothwell & Kazanas 1986, Gordon 2002). Most of an individual’s perception suffers from inaccuracy, distortions, and biases. When thinking back on a past memory individuals do not recall the accurate recollection, but a faded perception that has been modified by personal influences and accounts that have suffered from memory errors (Lewis 2003). The power of a person’s perception can shape and influence their behaviour. Of interest to many organisational human resource professionals is the impact of individual personality characteristics of newly hired individuals on the productivity of the organisation. The forces of optimism that certain organisations experience seem to have a relationship to performance. Specifically, organisations that use small groups to achieve performance objectives may have noticed that the participating team members’ and supervising manager’s levels of personality influenced the group’s ability to perform (Clark 2005).

The observation of the authors was that of a national sales/operations director in a well known chain of amusement parks. The director was to develop optimistically challenged teams to produce optimum sales. On most days, the parks were busy and the teams were diligently doing their assigned task of producing sales. Each team consisted of a front contact/sales person, a cashier/sales person, a sound engineer, and a final delivery person. Each person within the team was completely cross trained to function expertly at each position. Each team received daily goals that were based on the projected attendance in the park. While some teams seemed to reach the intended goals on a consistent basis, others rarely attained the assigned goals. When addressing these issues with the local store management, a sense of the manager’s belief, or faith, in reaching the goals became obvious.

From a qualitative point, managers who seemed optimistic about reaching the goal and optimistic about the teams’ potential success seemed to have teams that would consistently reach the sales objective. Alternatively, managers who seemed pessimistic about reaching the sales objective and pessimistic about the potential success of their teams seemed to have teams that would consistently fail to reach the sales objectives. There seemed to be conceptualised a symbiotic relationship between the motivations of successful groups and the participating members and unsuccessful groups with their members. The teams’ own conceptualisations of pessimism or optimism seemed to have a dramatic impact on whether a team was successful or not. There became a vivid clarity, from a qualitative view, that the organisation should hire only the more optimistic individuals. It appears to be that when managers are successful in matching their perceptions regarding employee optimism with the actual levels of optimism, this will directly result in increased value for the hiring practices in organisations. However, how could a hiring authority employ a more optimistic individual without testing for optimism? Could an observation or a perception of optimism be adequate in ascertaining an individual’s optimism? To date there is no study that has investigated the perception of optimism and the accuracy in which this perception is true to the actual levels of optimism.

This paper argues that both managerial perception and group’s optimism is significant to the levels of employee optimism. Considering the gaps in the research, the authors identified four overriding themes in which this study could contribute. These themes include employee selection, impression management, the optimism factor, and lack of measurement tools. From these themes, a developed model identifies the relationship between contribution and perception. Additionally, a modified instrument is developed and tested.

Literature Review

Employee Selection

Organisations search for more effective ways groups or teams can be productive. Because organisations continually strive to be as productive and profitable as possible, individuals responsible for hiring and training employees are encouraged to make sound, accurate decisions during their hiring procedures. One way that hiring practices have changed over the years is the use of personality tests (Maccoby 2005). Individual worker personality can explain the dysfunctional aspects of organisations (Kets de Vries, Manfred & Miller 1986). In 1997, the Society for Human Resource Management indicated that 22 per cent of the U.S. companies use personality tests to screen candidates. These tests could be an inventory type of survey, projective tests, or even role playing exercises. However, these personality tests do not specifically ascertain optimism as a factor in considering an employee as a valuable asset.

Literature has been published to explain a few measures, such as expectancy-valence theory, the Life Orientation Test (LOT) (Carver, Scheier & Bridges 1994), and the Optimism/pessimism Scale (OPS) (Dember, et al. 1989). These instruments attempt to analyse and explain dynamics of motivation such as optimism and pessimism. However, these measures seem to be for individuals, and not the perception of optimism in others. Literature has also been published regarding individuals and how they modify their behaviour toward those goals and/or values that they regard as advantageous (Feather 1990). Further, work using the Personal Project Analysis (PPA) (Little 1983) points to the concept of organised thinking and personal well being as a chain of actions that are meant to achieve a purpose or goal important to the individual.

All three constructs (i.e., the LOT, the PPA and the OPS) are used to study the orientation of individuals between some of the antecedents of being pessimistic/optimistic. However, questions arise when individuals are placed into work groups and the dynamics of the work group vary from the individually anticipated dynamics. Does optimism exist at the group level or is the phenomenon created through individual perception? Individuals identified as optimistic through one of the above mentioned measures may, in fact, be optimistic in a group context. Additionally, these individuals may be able to identify optimism in a group context and do so with little distortion (Kunkel 1997).

Impression Management

While organisations go to a great extent to influence the impression that they make on employees, some organisations use psychologists to initially detect compatibility on personality factors (Knezel 1977). In today’s organisations managers are sent to human resource training sessions to help them manage the dynamics within their work groups and increase motivation. One type of training that is quite common in organisational sales training is impression management. Indeed, the last ten years has brought about a fair amount of research in impression management dealing with the office environment (Chaney & Lyden 1996), managerial impression tactics (Kacmar, Wayne & Wright 1996), interpersonal factors (Leary & Kowalski 1990), the attribution process of job performance (Greenhaus & Parasuraman 1993), and interpersonal perception (Jones 1990). From these studies, an abstraction that personal interactions from experiences may have a modifying effect on the attitude or behaviours of the individual can be made. These interactions, past experiences, and perceptions or impressions have not been explored within the context of an optimism/pessimism measure. Yet they may provide insight as to why workgroups become optimistic or pessimistic. When individuals within a group become lackadaisical, and demonstrate changes from an optimistic to a pessimistic attitude, or become social loafers (Karau & William 1993), a difference in the group’s perceived overall, or generalised optimism may be noticed. This change in perceived optimism may indicate that managerial intercession may be needed to modify the group flailing between optimism and pessimism. When this intercession occurs, members of a group are affected and these group members may make memory events regarding the perceived optimism of the manager. Overall, the impression management may have impacted the perception of the individual.

While management needs to intercede to curb a group’s flailing from optimistic to pessimistic, the manager’s own optimism/pessimism may have a modifying effect on the group’s outlook. While there are no current measures of group optimism or the perception of optimism, group research areas that lend insight into group dynamics include charismatic leadership (Gardner & Avolio 1998), intra-group communication (Gladstien 1994, Campion, Papper & Medsker 1996), faith and belief in good performance (Lindsey, Brass & Thomas 1995), and values, perceptions and codes of conduct (Erez & Earley 1993). Yet these studies fail to address optimism or pessimism directly, and reliable measures are only available for individual self evaluation for optimism through the use of the OPS (Dember, et al. 1989) or the LOT (Scheier, Wientraub & Carver 1986).

The Optimism Factor

In order to develop a measure of optimism/pessimism perception, an evaluation of the pessimism literature provides the identification of gap in which a measurement is developed. By definition, pessimism is synonymous with negativity, doubt, distrust, cynicism, or lack of optimism. When individuals display these attributes, they are categorised as pessimistic regarding the subject matter. An additional complication for the American culture is that many individuals have developed a pessimism syndrome that has had a debilitating effect on their attitudes regarding life, work, and performance (Mazarr 1998). What is the source of this pessimism? Moreover, does it affect the general attitudes of a workgroup or team? The current workforce, suffering from pessimism syndrome, is frequently being placed into teams or workgroups and expected to have high performance. These workgroups have a wide variety of personality characteristics that effect performance. To help identify employees that will match organisational culture, organisations continue to employ the use of personality testing. However, no measurements for group optimism are yet developed. This outcome is despite a fair amount of research measuring optimism/pessimism in individuals is found primarily in the fields of health, psychology, business, and sociology. This research varies from friendship development (Reilley & Dember 1998), social support networks (Scheier, et al. 1986), and results from rejection (Carver, et al. 1994). However, in these studies researchers do not address the issue of workforce group optimism. Of these measures, the authors identified two streams of highly cited research regarding optimism and pessimism. These scales were the OPS by Dember, et al. (1989), and the LOT by Scheier, et al. (1986).

Lack of Measurement Tools

The OPS and LOT measures have been used extensively in the stated fields of study, specifically for individual measurements of optimism or pessimism. However, these measures do not seem to have been applied to a perception of optimism or pessimism. Extensive literature has been published regarding group dynamics in the area of group effectiveness, group leadership, group goals, goal setting, group enjoyment, and membership anxiety. However, many of the studies do not discuss optimism or pessimism and only a few vaguely allude to the possibility that groups can be optimistic or pessimistic, and of the studies reviewed for this paper, none of them discussed the modifying effect of such an attribute as group optimism to the overall group milieu for members in the group. Hence, two research questions were developed.

Research Question One: Does optimism contribution by individual group members lead to a mean perception of group optimism?

Research Question Two: Does the level of the perceived optimism of the group by the individual members significantly differ from the optimism contributed by the members?

Figure 1 provides a visual concept to a collaboration theory of group dynamics. While individual members contribute their personal traits of optimism, or pessimism, to a group, the group itself collectively assimilates the traits and then portrays these traits. Thus, being perceived by the members differently than the individual contributions, the group, as an entity, has an identity.

Figure 1
O/P Group Relationship Model
O/P Group Relationship Model

It is expressed in Figure 1 that members of a group can contribute to individual levels of optimism or pessimism and perceive a level of optimism or pessimism. For example, member three (3) is contributing to the pessimism level, members one (1) and four (4) are contributing to the optimism level, and member two (2) is neither contributing to optimism nor pessimism. Furthermore, it is shown in Figure 1 the perception of the group, as viewed by all the members, is the mean of the contributions (between the dotted lines). Therefore, in this arrangement, and stated in the research questions, it is posited in Figure 1 that there is a correlation between the perception of the group’s O/P and the actual collective level of O/P. Additionally, it is posited is that the level of optimism contributed individually will be positively correlated to the perception of the O/P of the group.

Methodology

Site and Subjects

A total of 756 undergraduate students, who were enrolled in management courses at a large U.S. Midwest state university, participated in the study for partial course credit. All identifying data were removed for security purposes after credit was assigned. The mean age was 22.2 years and there was a mean of the construct of ‘group’s experiences’ of seven group experiences. The demographics of the subjects further highlighted were a collaboration theory of group dynamics. There were 756 subjects, of which 456 (60.3 per cent) were males and 300 (39.7 per cent) were females, out of which 558 (73.8 per cent) were white, 111 (14.7 per cent) were black, 16 (2.1 per cent) were Hispanic, two (0.3 per cent) were Indian, 66 (8.7 per cent) were Asian, and three (0.4 per cent) were miscellaneous. Thus, the demographical ethnicity was representative to the current approximation of the 2002 U.S. census.

Procedure

The students were assigned alphabetically into groups of five people. No consideration was given to produce groups that were more homogeneous than another on the variables of age, gender, or ethnic background. Groups discussed freely the options of communication and experienced three ice breakers exercises over the course of a week. Each group assigned a group leader to facilitate communication and assignment delivery, and all groups were provided with the same three published case studies regarding well known and documented events in recent history. Group members were required to read the case and to answer pertinent questions, and then discuss the case using one of the three contact options with the other group’s members. As a group, each question was discussed and a group answer was formulated as the best group answer. All the group members received the same grade as assigned for the group. The goal was to achieve the highest grade possible (i.e., 100 per cent).

Students were supplied both the LOT-R scale (Scheier, et al. 1986) and the newly modified instrument (PGOT – perceived group optimism test) (both shown in appendix A) at the end of all the exercises. Of the original 768 students placed into the 166 groups, attrition (i.e., mortality) accounted for missing data of 12 persons (< two per cent). No group had less than four members throughout the research project.

Measures

After a review of the literature and the currently available measures, two specific measures for optimism seemed to be best suited for this research. These measures are the Optimism/Pessimism Scale (OPS) and Life Orientation Test (LOT). To categorise individuals as a pessimistic, an Optimism/Pessimism Scale (OPS), that was developed, tested, and published in 1989, was used. The questionnaire includes 18 items that measure optimism, 18 items that measure pessimism and 20 items that are fillers. The instrument is a four point scale that ranged from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The alpha reliability for testing pessimism using this scale was 0.84. While this scale has been tested, retested, and modified for specific areas of study, the reliability of the measure has stayed strongly consistent in the field of psychology (Burke, Joyner, Czech & Wilson 2000).

The life orientation test (Appendix 1) (LOT-R; Scheier, et al. 1986) is a test of six questions addressing optimism/pessimism and four filler questions. The scale uses a five point Likert scale with a range from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The alpha reliability for testing optimism/pessimism using this scale was 0.79 (Burke, et al. 2000). Seemingly shorter and easier to administer than the OPS, the LOT-R has similar reliability and has noted construct validity (Scheier, et al. 1986). The questions for the LOT-R include ten items used to measure the level of optimism and/or pessimism in individuals.

Using the foundational work of Scheier, et al. (1986), and the LOT-R scale, a modified instrument was developed to retrieve the perceptions of the individual group members – specifically, the perceived optimism level of the group. A modified questionnaire provided self report information about both the individual and the perception of a group’s optimism.

Following the practices of the reviewed literature, the data regarding the optimism of the group was averaged for each responding team. The results of this data were compared to the individual levels of reported optimism and analysed for factors that may provide correlations between personal optimism and perceived group optimism.

Analysis

Factor analysis (principle component), and using the varimax rotation option, and Kaiser normalisation, was conducted on the original LOT-R. As a result of the factor analysis, six variables loaded at acceptable levels, OP1 on individual optimism 0.717, OP2 on individual pessimism 0.750, OP3 on individual optimism 0.733, OP4 on individual pessimism 0.743, OP5 on individual pessimism 0.694, and OP6 on individual optimism 0.684, in three iterations.

The pessimism variables were reverse scored for optimism contribution and reliability assessed using Cronbach alpha. These assessments gave scores for individual optimism 0.68, and perceived optimism 0.71. A factor analysis was then conducted using varimax rotation and Kaiser Normalization on a modified LOT-R to ascertain the perception of group optimism. The six variables also loaded at acceptable levels. Specifically, OPG1 on perceived optimism 0.820, OPG2 on perceived pessimism 0.759, OPG3 on perceived optimism 0.741, OPG4 on perceived pessimism 0.757, OPG5 on perceived pessimism 0.721, and OPG6 on perceived optimism 0.593, in three iterations. The perceived pessimism variables were again reverse scored for perceived optimism and reliability assessed using Cronbach alpha to obtain an assessment of 0.770.

The summations of individual optimism scores were calculated to determine a total optimism that would be contributed to the group. The individual optimism contributions were then averaged to develop a group optimism level score. The perception measures were then summated and averaged to develop perceived group optimism.

Results

Overall, bivariate relationships were determined by correlation analysis. Correlations between individual optimism contributed and group optimism levels were r = 0.472, p < 0.001, for individual optimism and individual optimism perceived r = 0.353, p < 0.001, and at the group level the average group optimism and individual perception of group optimism r = 0.396, p < 0.001.

Table 1 presents the results of regression analysis for average group optimism with optimism perceived. Average group optimism was found to be a significant predictor (p < 0.000 and an adjusted R2 = 0.152). The Durbin Watson result of 1.833 is acceptable and provides that there is not a multi-collinearity problem in the equation. This finding indicates that individual contribution of optimism is linearly related to a group’s optimism perceived.

Table 1
Regression for Group Optimism and Optimism Perceived
Model values Change statistics Durbin Watson
# R R2 A R2 Std R2 F df1 df2 P <
1 0.396 0.157 0.152 1.808 0.157 30.58 1 164 0.000 1.833

Notes:
a. Predictors: (constant), average group optimism.
b. Dependent variable: Optimism perceived.
c. A = adjusted, std = standard error, and df = degrees of freedom.

Table 2 presents the results of a one way ANOVA that was conducted to identify significant differences between the factor variable, individual optimism, the dependent variable, and the perception of group optimism. As shown in Table 2, the result of p < 0.000 indicates that contribution and perception is significantly different for the individual contributor. There is a significant positive correlation between individual optimism and the optimism of a group, the optimism of the individual and the perception of optimism, and the level of optimism in a group and the perception of optimism by the members.

Table 2
Individual Optimism and Perception of Group Optimism (N = 756)
Sum of squares df Mean square F p <
Between groups 1207.97 56 21.57 1.99 0.000
Within groups 7558.12 699 10.81
Total 8766.09 755

Notes:
a. Cronbach’s Alpha (Perceived pessimism) = 0.77.
b. Cronbach’s Alpha (Perceived optimism) = 0.71.

Discussion

The impact of individual characteristics on the productivity of the organisational workforce is a valuable area of study. There are specific findings in this study that should be discussed that may be of value to a human resource professional. Overall, the results of the analyses provide a dynamic insight into the personality dimension of optimism and the ability to perceive optimism in a group setting. Based on these results, a number of findings can be suggested. First, the higher the optimism contributed by individual members of a group the higher the optimism of the group is likely to become. This finding seems to be self evident.

Finding One: The more optimistic the members of a group, the more optimistic the group.

This finding lends itself to common sense more than anything else. For instance, it may be observed that when individual group members are optimistic, this optimism carries over to the rest of the group members. The underlying logic is that the remainder of the group members tend to be affected by the positive optimism levels of the individual members. Second, optimistic individuals will perceive group optimism more optimistically. Again, this finding seems to be self evident.

Finding Two: The more optimistic the individual within a group, the more optimistic the perception of the group’s optimism.

This finding also lends itself to conventional wisdom. On the one hand, when an individual is optimistic then that individual is more likely to perceive group optimism more optimistically than an individual who is not initially optimistic. On the other hand, when an individual is not optimistic, then that individual is less likely to perceive group optimism more optimistically. Third, when a group composite of optimism is high, the individual members seem to perceive higher levels of optimism.

Finding Three: The higher the level of optimism in a group the higher the perception of optimism by the individual members.

This finding shows the effects group optimism has on individual group member optimism. When an individual group member finds himself or herself in a group that has high levels of optimism, then it is more than likely that the individual group member will be positively affected by these high levels of optimism.

Fourth, after the analysis, the results indicate the perception of optimism by a group member is highly related to the actual average optimism within the group.

Finding Four: The perception of optimism is directly related to the actual mean score of the individual member contribution of optimism.

The fifth finding is a culmination of the study results. The data presented in this study suggest that perception of optimism can be accurately ascertained. Additionally, the ascertaining of optimism can be accurately assessed by optimistic individuals.

Finding Five: The ascertaining of optimism can be effectively completed by any participating member of a group.

The results of this study have also provided evidence that personality characteristics of optimism and pessimism can be accurately measured. This observation is confirmation of reports from earlier studies. Furthermore, that the modified inventory can be used to ascertain optimism through an individual perception. Additionally, this study provides evidence that an organisation can employ practices of evaluating group levels of optimism through perception measures of one member of each group, thus eliminating extensive questionnaires as well as administrative and associated costs to organisations.

Under hiring practices, the interviewer may be able to accurately identify an optimism level of a role playing interviewee group. Additionally, an interviewer may be able to eliminate the individuals that do not have the optimisms levels needs to increase current workgroup optimism levels.

Conclusion

This study provides four important contributions to the field. First, this study has provided empirical evidence that groups can be accurately identified as a mean of the individual member’s contributions. Second, that perception of the group is relative to the contribution of the individual member and significantly will have directionality to the mean of the group. While organisations continue to utilise groups and develop teams for a multitude of organisational tasks, it is important that the understanding of how these groups and teams function is a mean effort of the individual member contributions. Third, organisations with active human resource departments can benefit through the use of optimism identification in employee candidates. The use of role playing may provide the observer an opportunity to identify optimism levels in candidates that will provide added optimism to the organisation’s workforce and ultimately higher performance. Last, while the literature on personality is primarily found in the psychology and social behaviour, organisational behaviour and human resource streams discourses are limited in the studies analysing personality and group level data. Cross discipline studies are progressively becoming more acceptable and more frequently reported. However, the topic of optimism is not an area to have been cross-disciplined. The discourse needs to draw from the literature of social psychology and organisational behaviour and develop studies accordingly.

This study has provided a foundational guide to utilise an individual’s perception of optimism as an accurate measure of a group’s optimism. Additionally, elaborations to this study could be that optimism is a personality trait that can be accurately identified in computer-mediated communication for the organisation that operates globally.

Authors

Dr. Michael B. Knight is an Assistant Professor of Computer Information Systems at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. He holds a PhD in Business Administration from Southern Illinois University. His current research interests include group dynamics and strategic IT adoption, end-user education and training, the use of IT for organisational/group communication and the impact on individual personality, and qualitative managerial consulting. His work has been presented at conferences such as IRMA, AOM, AMCIS, DSI, and is published in the Journal of Organisational Behaviour and The Journal of Organisational and End User Computing.

E-mail: Knightmb@appstate.edu

Dr. Abdel Moneim M.K. Elsaid is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the Faculty of Commerce, Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt. He holds a PhD in Business Administration from Southern Illinois University. His current research interests include social loafing, group dynamics, motivation, and employee evaluation and assessment. His work has been presented at conferences such as AOM, and currently has manuscripts under review at the SMJ, AMJ, and Group Dynamics.

E-mail: Drelsaid78@yahoo.com

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