Benjamin Zander’s web site describes him as a conductor, teacher, and dynamic world-traveling speaker on management and leadership issues.  While I have never had the pleasure of attending in person one of Mr. Zander’s leadership talks, I have had the opportunity of hearing his often unique and provocative views on film and on-line; most recently a “TED Talk” about “The Transformative Power of Classical Music”, easily accessed via You Tube or the TED web site.  One of Zander’s most frequent messages concerns the “power of possibilities” and giving those you manage and propose to lead “possibilities to live into”.

I frequently raise this topic in my management workshops and participants quickly draw the parallel between expectations and “possibilities to live into”.  “Are they not the same”, I am frequently asked?  “I do not believe they are”, I reply, and here is why.

In the world of work, EXPECTATIONS concerning our performance are generally presented to us by those in charge.  They are an important component of good management practice, they provide motivational goals and targets for us to strive toward, and they provide us with a solid understanding of the performance judgment criteria we face.

Moreover, many of us have grown accustomed to working in an expectations-centered environment, since we have long experience in doing so thanks to our parents, guardians, families, teachers, clergy, etc.  In truth, many of us would be lost without a sense of what is expected of us to guide our performance and this is why Behavioral Science has long found a close correlation  between expectations and performance — both high achievement and under achievement as well.

I am not suggesting that managers abandon the use of performance expectations.  Rather, I am suggesting they enhance them by considering the potential power of helping subordinates transform expectations — whenever possible — into possibilities to live into.

For me, the key difference between these two concepts lies in the role played by the individual to whom the possibility applies.  While expectations are generally externally imposed — a standard to meet — a possibility presents the individual with considerably more control over determining the criteria for achieving an agreed upon goal.  Consider the following example provided by Benjamin Zander’s wife Rosamund:

” Ben and I have a practice called, “Giving everyone an A.  It started because Ben has a graduate class at the New England Conservatory and he had a lot of very anxious people in this class. And Ben said, “I don’t know how to get by it”. So I said, the only way to do that is to give them all an A, from the beginning of the year.  So what we developed was that every student got an A and had to write a letter, dated the following May, saying “Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because”.

So then these beautiful letters emerged. Just saying that, the person that was sort of hidden inside there, the person who the student would be, if there were no barriers, no fears, no little voices in the head, telling them what they couldn’t do.  Giving the A is a completely different paradigm. It is the paradigm of possibility. And we say that the A is a possibility to live into, not a standard to live up to.

What struck me almost at once about this switch in paradigms from expectations to possibilities, was the power it gives all of us to become an additional judge of our own performance and effort.  I have known so many individuals over the years who are painfully dependent on what others think of their efforts and are constantly burdened by the fear that they are not living up to the expectations of others.  Once trapped in this dependency upon the perceptions of others, it is difficult to break free.

Some will say the Zander’s are wrong; an A must be earned in advance, not bestowed as a free good.  But the workplace is not school and workplace performance is not evaluated via test scores, exams, and scholastic grades.  At work, the goal of effective management is to find ways to assist every employee to achieve his or her maximum potential.  It is in the service of this objective, that helping  subordinates shape possibilities to live into” for themselves, has its greatest potential power.

While a manager’s expectations will always matter to most subordinates, the liberating and motivational challenge of achieving a possibility of one’s own design, can often unlock those special talents the Zander’s describe as “just hidden inside”.

Categories: Managing People, Motivating Top Performance

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