How Great Expectations Can Boost Team Performance

Photo by  Ben White  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

When it comes to your team's performance, you get what you expect.

That's the key lesson from a 1960's study conducted by psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson at an elementary school in California. (See study: Pygmalion in the Classroom.)

In the experiment, all students grades one through six were given IQ tests. The researchers then identified the "Top 20 Percent" for each class—those students who were to be considered the most gifted.

But here's the catch. The researchers labeled the "gifted" students at random, not by their actual IQ scores, and withheld that information from the teachers, who assumed that the students in the "top" group indeed had the highest potential.

Then something very interesting happened. When all the students were re-tested eight months later, the randomly selected "top" group scored significantly higher, with greater improvement compared to their peers.

But how could that happen? After all, they weren't actually the most gifted group; they were just identified as such to the teachers.

The prevailing theory over the years is that teachers’ expectations have a profound impact on student performance.

For example, when a teacher assumes they're working with a gifted child, they might pay much closer attention to when the student struggles, providing extra effort, encouragement, and help to ensure that child's success. After all, this is a "gifted child," the teacher reasons, "so maybe I need to make adjustments to get this lesson across more effectively."

In other words, the teacher's positive expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But the same can also be said about negative expectations.

If the teacher doesn't expect much out of a student, they might give up on that child too soon, thinking "Well, he's a poor student anyway. I'm not so sure I'll ever get through to him."

As a result, the teacher hesitates to put in the extra effort needed to help push that child to persist through struggle and strive toward his highest potential.

So, what's the takeaway here for entrepreneurs?

Our expectation of employees—and how we communicate that expectation to them—creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that directly impacts their performance.

Think about it. If you don't expect much out of your people, they'll meet those expectations to the point where you throw up your hands and say, "Just get out of my way, and let me do it!"

But if you look for the potential in each member of your team and tell inspiring stories that challenge them to stretch past their comfort zones—even if that means they make mistakes along the way—you'll often find them surpassing your highest expectations.

The Bottom Line

When you communicate to your team how much you believe in their potential, they'll do everything possible not to let you down.

And that's important because you need your team performing at their best to help you achieve your highest potential as an entrepreneur.

As President Ronald Reagan once put it, "The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things."

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, a Strategy and Storytelling consultancy that helps entrepreneurs tell their story in a way that grabs attention, garners trust, and grows their business. 

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