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Think Your Coworkers Are Stressed? A New Study Suggests It Might Be Projection

Topics: Data & Research
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Do you think of stress as positive or negative? Your answer may determine how you evaluate coworkers and reports who are dealing with stressful work situations, according to new research from the University of Tel Aviv.

“This study is the first to show that our own psychological mindset determines how we judge other peoples’ responses to stress — specifically, whether we perceive stress as positive or negative,” principal investigator Prof. Sharon Toker tells Science Daily.

The Findings

The research, which was published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, first examined online questionnaires from 377 American employees. The questionnaire described a worker named “Ben,” who held a demanding managerial job with long hours. Participants were asked to rate his burnout levels.

The results showed that participants who saw stress as “positive and enhancing,” were more likely to perceive Ben as being worthy of promotion. Those who had more negative perceptions of stress were more likely to rate him as burned out.

A second set of experiments involved 600 American and Israeli subjects and evaluated whether perceptions of stress could be changed. Researchers “primed” subjects by asking them to write about their experiences with stress in either negative or positive ways. Participants were then given the description of Ben’s job and asked to evaluate his level of burnout, productivity and suitability for promotion. They were also asked whether they’d help him with his work.

“Study participants who were primed to have a positive/enhancing stress mindset rated Ben as suffering less from stress-related symptoms and were consequently more likely to recommend Ben for promotion. They were also less likely to offer him help,” said researcher Prof. Daniel Heller. “But those primed to feel as though stress was debilitating/negative felt that Ben was more burned out and consequently less fit to be promoted.”

What Does This Mean for You?

This study is a good reminder that bias affects our perception. If you find yourself evaluating a direct report harshly on the basis of their stress levels, it’s a good idea to consider whether the problem is their response to high-pressure situations … or your mindset.

On the other hand, if your own boss identifies stress as an issue for you, it might be helpful to know that their attitudes may be coloring their perception. Of course, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to convince your manager to let you prime them with more positive attitudes. If the disconnect costs you a promotion, your best bet might be to look for a new job, reporting to someone who sees stress as a positive.

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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