THE POWER OF CLEAR POSITIVE EXPECTATIONS

A LITTLE THING THAT MATTERS — 

In a previous blog I entitled “Being Smart”,  I referred to Stanford Professor Carol Dweck’s remarkable study of over 400 New York City fifth graders in which she demonstrated that simply by creating the mind-set and expectation that one group of the study’s participants were hard workers, she was able to encourage them to rise to new challenges, take more risks, and improve their performance on a series of puzzle tests.

The power of positive expectations was also the focus of a 1968 research  effort conducted by Professors Rosenthal and Jacobson, the results of which are often referred to as the “Pygmalion Effect”*.  After pre-testing a group of elementary school students on an intelligence test, Rosenthal and Jacobson selected a randomly chosen cross-section (20%) of them and told their teachers that all of them had “unusual potential for intellectual growth”.  Re-tested eight months later, all of the randomly selected students the teachers were told would bloom, scored significantly higher on their intelligence tests.  The teacher’s pre-biased expectations and subsequent efforts, had helped make that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Applied to adults, especially in the workplace, there is equally ample evidence that the performance expectations established by managers are a key factor in how well subordinates perform; see, for example, Susan Heathfield’s article @ About.com.  Moreover, considering the Pygmalion Effect, managers often treat their subordinates in ways that are unconsciously shaped by what they expect of them.  Thus, it is not just what a manager says but also the many subtle ways a manager’s actions may communicate expectation messages that comes into play here.

Little wonder, given all the evidence, that I consider establishing and communicating clear, positive expectations  for subordinates, something that really matters for success as a manager.

From personal experience, most of us recognize that we tend to perform better when we have clear, unambiguous performance targets to shoot at.  When we understand how our efforts will be measured and evaluated, it allows us to focus our talents in specific and appropriate ways.  This is why I warn managers and non-managers alike, that uncertainty concerning performance expectations is a bit like walking around in a strange hotel room, in the dark, at 3:00  AM in the morning.  Sooner or later we are likely to get hurt.

Consequently, the best managers are those who are able to transfer their personal appreciation for clear positive expectations, into a consistent practice for all those entrusted to their management skills.  These are the managers who are skilled in gaining insight into the individual talents and potential of all those they supervise, and of devising a tailored set of positive performance expectations designed to stretch, develop, and motivate each individual.  These are also the managers who understand that subordinates are just as likely to fulfill negative expectations and thus they strive to avoid communicating them whenever possible.

Most importantly, the best managers understand that realism is essential, if the establishment of clear expectations is to work their magic power.  To establish a set of unrealistic expectations — no matter how personally desirable — that lie beyond the capabilities of even the most determined subordinates, ends up being counterproductive, demotivating, and degrading of overall performance.

Of all the little things I have discussed in this current series of blogs, the communicating of clear, positive expectations for those one manages has perhaps the greatest long-term potential to produce deeply satisfying results.  There are few greater pleasures for a manager, than having the opportunity to sit back and observe  a group of talented, motivated, and dedicated subordinates strive for and fulfill their performance potential.

So give talented individuals clear, realistic expectations TO LIVE INTO — not just standards to live up to — and most of them will not disappoint.

*Pygmalion , a sculptor of Greek Mythology fame, created a female statue of great beauty.  Absent a wife and enamored by the beauty of his own making, he prayed to the goddess Venus for a wife in the statue’s likeness.  Granting his wish, Venus brought his statue to life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s