I recently role-played a high performing senior leader. The other player, my boss, was briefed that she needs me to focus my energy and competence on a new goal. And I was to lead my team to make a big, short-term course correction. She had to get me to make that change, when I was convinced that mine was the right strategy. Firing me was not an option.
Here’s what happened:
I heard my conversation partner congratulate me on my impressive track record. But the appreciative words did not land at all.
Instead I tightened up, because the person’s body language and facial expression just screamed at me: I don’t appreciate you and would much rather fire you!
Research shows that we have excellent sensors for detecting whether others are genuine with us or not. And we respond to what we pick up about them more than to their words or actions. Whoops!
Do you think I was motivated to rise to my highest potential and hop on board with the new initiative my boss proposed?
There is an exciting potential for great leadership in this finding.
When we see potential in others, no matter how they are performing now, we are expecting them to grow. And grow is what they do in response.
Harvard researcher Robert Rosenthal and school principal Lenore Jacobson conducted a study to prove that others’ expectations of a person affect that person’s performance.
In an elementary school, Rosenthal gave all students a basic IQ test and told teachers that it was a newly developed “fast spurters” test, which would identify the smartest students who were expected to make the biggest leaps over the coming school year. The researchers then randomly selected a group of students and informed the teachers that those were the fast spurters. The confidential information was not communicated to the students.
At the end of the year, the “fast spurters” had improved significantly more than their peers. In addition to that, their IQs had risen significantly more than the IQs of the other students as well!
“Pygmalion Effect” tests have since been repeated in different contexts, amongst them with employees in business contexts. The findings are clear: The way we see others, opens us to their potential for success which has existed all along. Our high expectations lead to their higher performance. This has also been tested the other way around. Lower expectations lead to lower performance: the golem effect.
For leaders this means: To grow others, work on your own mindset, and expect to be positively surprised by their ability.