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Job-hunt success hinges on positive attitude, study finds

The days since you lost your job are dragging on and you've had so many rejections, you're telling yourself the hunt for a new one might be hopeless.

It's a mental trap that can add weeks to your job search, a new study has found.

But fortunately even the most negative job seekers can improve their chances of employment by taming their emotions and looking ahead rather than dwelling on past failures, according to researcher Connie Wanberg, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

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Old-fashioned as it may seem, when you feel down in your search, "trying to keep a smile on your face and staying motivated by telling yourself that 'it will happen when it's meant to happen' turns out to be a remarkable key to success," she said.

Hers is the first study to follow people through their entire job search, tracking both their mental health and job search intensity, she said. The study followed 177 people in Minnesota who had been laid off, from the time they applied for unemployment insurance until they found work.

They were given personality tests and researchers asked about their efforts and emotions every week for 20 weeks. By that point, 72 per cent had found work.

But the speed at which they landed a job correlated strongly with how people felt emotionally about the search. About half of the people in the study – and in the general population – have what scientists call "approach orientation" They have a zest for learning, growth, and a feeling of being in control of their circumstances.

That group was more likely to put in consistent effort and landed jobs more quickly than the other half of the job seekers, who scored as "avoidance oriented individuals," whose personality was geared toward defensiveness and avoidance of failure.

"They get into a downward spiral of self doubt and self talk: they tell themselves 'I can't do this, no one is going to hire me, there are no jobs for me out there or my skills are out of date,'" Prof. Wanberg said.

However, while this reaction may be part of personality, it's something that people can become aware of and control, she said.

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It turned out that those who tested as having avoidance behaviour who found jobs the quickest had consciously focused on persisting toward a goal and overcoming obstacles.

"People can turn themselves around by getting some support when they find themselves slipping into negativity and focusing on telling themselves they can do it," Prof. Wanberg said.

A big assist in motivation control can be finding the right resources: Job hunters need to have friends and relatives be on the lookout for when the job seekers get down on themselves, and provide constant reassurance, she said.

Another big factor in shortening the time to employment was developing a regular routine, according to the study, which appears in the Academy of Management Journal. "The reason is that a job search tends to be unstructured," which can be particularly jarring to someone used to having a daily workplace routine, specific tasks and a manager or co-workers to help set priorities, Prof. Wanberg said.

The study also found that all job seekers normally have a drop off in the number of hours they put in after the initial few weeks.

"It can be constructive for job seekers, as well as organizations that work with job-seekers, to monitor job-search levels over time to keep persistence in the search going," the researchers recommend.

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The research team included Ruth Kanfer, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology; Jing Zhu, now an assistant professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; and Zhen Zhang, now an assistant professor at Arizona State University.

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