What You Expect You Get; Do You Get It?

A Story About Leadership

I’m currently working with three clients who, in different ways and for different reasons, are working to improve their organization’s Performance Management systems. The three cultures differ dramatically, as do the issues that need addressing. Yet a common issue has emerged at all three: we need to do a better job of setting expectations.
Attention to expectations is not merely a Human Resources exercise. Good conversation about clear, challenging goals can make a HUGE difference in performance and workplace outcomes at all levels and all roles.

Performance Moves To Match Expectations

In a frequently reported study undertaken in the 1960s, psychologist Robert Rosenthal and his colleagues provided elementary school teachers in an inner city school with a list of their students who, based on testing, were predicted to blossom academically. In fact, the names on the list were randomly selected but, of course, the teachers did not know this. At the end of the year, the students on the list did blossom compared with those not on the list. Rosenthal found that the positive effect was even greater for Latino and African-American children than Caucasian children.[1]
The teachers in the Rosenthal study may have thought that they were responding to all children in the same way.  However, if you expect children to succeed, you will behave in ways to reinforce this expectation even without being aware of doing so. For instance, if you ask students considered to be “budding superstars” to answer a question and they cannot, you are more likely to support them, help them think through the problem, and eventually arrive at the correct answer. You do so since you expect that they can learn and when they do not, you consider how best to assist them.
In contrast, if you ask children who are not perceived as having great potential a question and they do not know the answer, you are apt to call immediately on another student. Also, budding superstars compared with their peers are more likely to elicit smiles and a positive tone of voice. They will respond in kind.
Syndicated Boston Globe columnist William Raspberry addressed the issue of expectations. In the article titled “Kids Won’t Learn if We Expect Failure,” he wrote of a conversation he had with Rod Paige, the Secretary of Education (2001-2005). They discussed factors that contribute to student failure, especially for children from poor homes. Paige offered the following opinion:
“One difference is expectation . . . . If a teacher does not believe every child can learn, and the evidence is that some children are not learning, the world seems all right. But if the teacher believes all children can learn, and some children aren’t learning, then there is a problem that demands answers.”

Bosses Are Teachers, Too

I see the so-called “Rosenthal Effect” show up in the workplace just as in the classroom. Suzy is labeled the “up-and-comer” and suddenly all her ideas are brilliant and her mistakes are deemed “great risks, learning opportunities.” Meanwhile, John is stuck with the “unreliable” label because he missed an important deadline two years ago, and he is continually frustrated because he can’t get his boss to pay attention to his ideas.
Case in point: One of my current coaching clients is a high-achieving, confident, scary-smart executive who has in just a few months under a new leader found herself questioning her future with the company. Why? For whatever reason, her executive leader has taken to correcting her in public, and requiring her to do twice the work of proving her ideas have merit. At first she rose to the higher challenge, but as that behavior has persisted, she is shrinking back from greatness and disengaging from the organization. Her boss has signaled that he believes she’s not capable, and it’s almost like she’s living into his expectation (coaching helps, but the pervasiveness of her boss’ doubt feels corrosive).
As I’ve watched this happen, I’ve reflected on Google’s recent (and controversial) decision to terminate the employment of the engineer who wrote about his belief that women are not capable of being engineers. Imagine what it would be like to work with someone like that, who fundamentally doubted your capability? How likely would you be to do your best work for someone who, even on your best days, would spend all their energy to prove you screwed up? I can picture my own response: “why even bother?”

What’s a Leader to Do?

When you consistently set clear, challenging goals for people, then coach them from a place of “I expect that you will deliver. I’m here to help you succeed,” then guess what? You have a lot more high performers than in a work group where the manager calls every success “a lucky break.”
Expect more – from your team, from yourself, and from life – and let others know your expectations. You’re more likely to have a happy experience than when you expect only mediocrity or–worse–don’t communicate anything at all.
Remember: Leadership is not about a title. Anyone can be a leader who creates clear and positive expectations and holds every person as capable and high-achieving.
[1] Portions of this and the next three paragraphs were adapted from an article by Robert Brooks, PhD, which can be read in its entirety here:drrobertbrooks.com/0210/

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