Most managers fail to understand how their expectations influence their peoples’ performance. What influencing power are you aware of? And when do you feel powerless?
You might complain that your subordinates underperform. If so, you’re seeing yourself as a victim of their disengagement. Yet you’re the most powerful player on the pitch. You’ve got the strongest change lever at your disposal: your positive expectations of them.
Here’s how this lever works:
When you regard someone on your team as a high potential, she will grow in her role. When you regard someone on your team as mediocre, she will perform below her potential.
You are the co-author of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your belief in someone leads you to pay attention to positive signs. And your attention enables a virtuous cycle of self-confidence, high performance, and growth.
This also works the other way around. Your low expectations spark a vicious cycle of apathy and weak performance.
Your own experience backs this up
Scientific studies have confirmed self-fulfilling prophecies at work in the context of schools and workplaces. But you don’t have to look that far. Instead, turn the camera around onto yourself. Remember when someone you looked up to has shown a lack of trust or interest in your capabilities. Likewise, remember when someone important believed in your talent and expected you to excel.
Uphill battle versus smooth sailing, right?
I remember moments like that and their effect on me. For instance, neither my teachers nor my parents seemed to care that I wasn’t “good at maths”. But I was anxious about my alleged lack of intelligence, ashamed that I didn’t get it. Despite my wish to do better, I continued to perform poorly all through grammar school.
Then I remember one algebra lesson as if it happened yesterday. My teacher asked me to the blackboard, and trembling inside, I managed to solve the problem! He was delighted. And his delight meant the world to me. It was a pivotal moment. Used to very bad marks in maths, I scored an A in this particular test. To this day, I like algebra. I’m confident that I’m good at it, and I enjoy practicing it with our school kid.
Let’s get back to you and your leadership magic.
How can you as a leader leverage your people’s highest potential?
Remember Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”? He bets he can pass off the poor cockney flower girl as a duchess, merely by teaching her how to speak “proper” English.
You can do that too, with a few simple steps.
- Pick someone in your team of whom you don’t have high expectations.
- Determine to find something they do well and pay special attention. Expect to find something positive – your belief in them is important!
- When you see them do something well, even something small, acknowledge them.
- Continue to watch out for more things they do well.
- Watch the virtuous cycle unfold, as this person starts slowly changing.
One small change creates the next one in a snowball effect. And this creates an upward spiral.
No matter where people are in their performance, when you grow your leadership, you grow your ability to influence their growth.