How to Hire an Optimist!


A new study shows why optimists do better over the course of their careers, make more money and are more likely to be promoted. How do you find them and hire them, and how do you become more optimistic yourself?


This is the first of a two-part series.  In Part 1 we’ll explore how to hire optimists and in Part 2 we’ll uncover the habits that help us become more optimistic.

“When you’re hiring, make sure to hire optimists,” Frank Kalinoski told me in 1977.  Frank was my boss and in charge of the Harrisburg PA district where I served as one of his managers.  It made sense, so I followed his advice and was rewarded amply by working with some fantastic people who taught me a the best practices of hiring and developing talent.

Forty-one years later I was delighted to see a 2019 Harvard Business Review article by Michelle Gielan entitled The Financial Upside of Being an Optimist.  It’s well worth the read!  According to her research and the research she cites, there’s proof that optimists are better people to hire, compared to their non-optimistic peers:

  • People in the top quartile of optimism are:

    – 40% more likely to get a promotion over the next year,

    – Six times more likely to be highly engaged at work, and

    – Five times less likely to suffer burnout, compared to non-optimists and pessimists.

  • Optimists outperform their peers in the job market.
  • Optimists search for jobs less intensively than their peers but receive job offers more quickly.
  • Optimists are more likely to be promoted in the first two years after graduation than their peers.


If Optimists Make Better Hires, How Can I Identify One?

As the glass-half-full picture above shows, people can view exactly the same thing in vastly different ways. Optimists see first the positive side of something while non-optimists see the negative side of the same thing.

If you ask someone if he or she is an optimist, what do you expect to hear, “No, I’m a terminal pessimist in search of my next disaster?” Of course not! Even the pessimists among us will represent themselves as optimists in order to sell themselves, especially in a job interview.

In order to figure out who among applicants for a particular opening is and is not an optimist, you’ll need to develop a set of behavioral interview questions. Here are five of my favorite interview questions:

  • Tell me about the kind of people with whom you work – what are they like? Ask this open-ended question in a neutral tone of voice with a neutral expression on your face so you don’t tip the candidate on how to answer. Optimists tend to describe people in generally positive terms, while pessimists more often focus first on negatives before describing any positives.
  • Reading the press about today’s employers, you tend to see some employers have negative cultures. What have you found to be true in the employers you worked for? The way this question is asked allows the candidate to express his/her true feelings. Optimists will focus on the positives, or how they took advantage of their opportunities, while pessimists may agree with the “negative culture” premise and provide examples of negative cultures in which they worked.
  • Who was the supervisor who challenged you the most professionally? Give me three examples of how this supervisor specifically challenged you, how you felt, and how you responded. Optimists tend to tell you about the positive impact challenging supervisors had on them and what they accomplished while being supervised by that person. Pessimists may focus on negative feelings or feelings of unfairness, possibly even cite that supervisor as a reason they quit.
  • With a list of the candidate’s employers at hand, ask: As I give you each employer or supervisor’s name, give me three to five descriptors – words or phrases – that immediately spring to mind about that employer or boss. Optimists will tend to offer more positive or complimentary descriptors while non-optimists will be neutral or negative. Watch for the level of conviction and enthusiasm (or lack) they use when they share the list of descriptors.
  • Tell me about the specific goals you are working on right now and give me your top three, why you chose them, and what accomplishing them will do for you. I love this question because you’ll hear whether or not the candidate believes he or she can make a difference (a trait of an optimist). Listen to their rationale – do the answers show intentionality, resolve, and discipline? Watch their body language – do they get energized by their answers, or do they seem defeated? And beware the candidate who struggles with this question!

The candidate’s answers to other questions you ask will also give you a sense about their optimism.

  • Pay attention to how they answer (tone of voice, degree of confidence, etc.) and body language.
  • When faced with difficult circumstances, did they accept the challenge and talk about the good and the positive things they learned or did (optimists), or did they take a negative view of what happened (pessimists).
  • Do they see life as an adventure (optimists) or a rigged game (pessimists)?
  • Are they cheerful and upbeat (optimists) or sober and discouraged (pessimists)?
  • Optimists believe their actions can improve outcomes while pessimists don’t believe there is much they can do about their circumstances.


HBR author Michelle Gielan has published an online self-assessment that measures four dimensions of optimism – you can visit her scientifically-validated optimism assessment tool and try it for yourself.

Bottom Line

Optimists make better candidates for hire, are more engaged at work, and perform better over time. If you have positions to fill, hire an optimist!

In Part 2 of this series we’ll discuss practical steps anyone can take to become a more optimistic person.

I love working with people and organizations who want to improve their effectiveness! Here are several outstanding resources that can help you and your organization to go to the next level:

I work with some of the world’s top employers by helping them get the most out of their talented people. My company’s extensive leadership development course catalog provides effective skills-building for everyone in the organization, from the new / developing leader to the seasoned C-level executive. My company’s coaching programs produce significant results in compressed periods of time. I also help job seekers, higher ed, and employment services connect people to better jobs faster. My company’s acclaimed career development tools help people navigate the ever-changing landscape of conducting a successful job search. To find out more, please visit us at, email us at, or call us at 215-942-0982.


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