The Power of Expectations

The Power of Expectations

The Law of Expectations tells us that what we expect of others we get. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The lack of belief about the individual’s capabilities—paired with low expectations—becomes equally prophetic. We also know from research that expectations can have more credence on performance than IQ.  Why do so many of our most intelligent, our “A” high IQ students, struggle outside of academia while countless “C” performers thrive and excel?  Savvy employers look for emotional intelligence—EQ (emotional quotient)—before making any kind of offer. In addition to EQ, we also recommend measuring their propensity for practical and systemic thinking, but that’s another can of worms and greatly dependent on individual roles in the organization.

Expectations by others are critical but only part of the equation. Thomas Cooley, distinguished American sociologist, tells us, “I am not what I think am. I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.” (Stick with me, this is important.)  In other words, it’s my perception of someone else’s perception of my perception of me that often determines how I behave. (Don’t give on me. You may want to reread that last sentence a few times.) It’s like eating the menu instead of the meal. We’re not getting authenticity! It’s an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation. What’s better, describing that outstanding meal from the five-star restaurant or tasting it yourself?  Most leaders undervalue—more likely are unaware of—this powerful concept. My point: I alter my behavior based on how I perceive what others think and expect of me, unless, of course, I practice a higher level of awareness.  Which means I need to remain clear about the current situation while maintaining my authenticity. Grasp—and apply—this concept and organizational performance soars!

Expecting greatness of others validates the phenomenal power of the hypnosis of social conditioning.  Perception creates a dynamic, positive impact on the performer as long we sustain the integrity of the work environment while cultivating the authenticity of its individuals. As effective leaders, we must also protect and sustain the authenticity of the work environment. We reap rewards in-kind by the authenticity of our performers. The event does not drive behavior; our perceptions of the event does. Whoa!  In other words, as a society—and as individuals—we constantly seek approval. Worst case scenario, we accumulate fears, insecurities, and lack of worthiness when shortchanged on approval; one of the many reasons the role of leader harbors so much power but walks such a thin and delicate line.

We know people rise or fall to the level of expectation we place upon them. Research supports that expectations dramatically influence and—in many cases—predict behavior; often referred to as the Pygmalion or Hawthorn effects. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse, however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.” Another Whoa! Place a 10 on someone’s forehead, she’s likely to perform as a 10; give her a 5, and you’ll probably get a 5. 

Organizational and Individual Performance:

Expectations fuel motivation.  Robert T. Tauber’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: A Practical Guide to Its Use in Education (1997) supports the theory that we get what we expect. We discovered over the years, and research abounds, that what we expect of our students, employees, and even each other becomes a strong predictor of future performance. If expectations are high, performance and achievement follow suite. Outstanding leaders understand that how we behave towards and treat others greatly determines the quality of their performance. Change this in your leadership style and you change your results. Costs nothing but knowhow and consistency.

We also see a direct correlation between expectations and improved confidence and self-esteem—if the climate and environment support them. It makes sense. As we fulfill the expectations of others (and of ourselves), we build neural pathways of a success mindset—again a predictor of future performance. Exceptions exist, of course, in both directions. Some achieve despite unclear expectations; some collapse their performance no matter how supportive or expectant we are of them, but both are outliers.

Past quality initiatives predict that we “get what we inspect not what we expect”.  The theory served us well for years. The mindset shift began with quality guru Edward Deming when he said, “Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for massive inspection by building quality into the product in the first place.” A lesson we continue to struggle to learn and apply today.  When we clearly identify expectations, and provide a system of measurement and feedback—supported by an appropriate climate and environment with emphasis on self-reporting—we achieve and generally exceed expectations without an overdependence on massive quality inspections. Simple, sustainable, and powerful for any organization. So, why aren’t you doing it?

Grant Stewart