I first came across the power of expectation early on in secondary school. This was remarkable, given that my school's only claim to fame was that more of its pupils left and went to prison than left and went to university.
The Head Teacher was once asked to describe the school. Was it academic? No. Was it vocational? No - he would say 'it's custodial'.
In this unlikely setting, I was blessed to learn about something that has proved really helpful to me throughout my career. I found out that we can influence people's performance through the power of our expectation. You want your staff to work harder? They will. You want your team to pull together? No problem. You want your senior managers to respond better? Right away!
We are judged by the performance of our people.
How can this be? Well, it is done by exerting the power of expectation - known to some as the 'self-fulfilling prophecy' or the 'Pygmalion Effect'. If good leaders are to get the best out of their people, at all levels, they need to communicate their highest expectations of them and not just assume that people will reach their peak performance levels automatically. We must never forget that, as managers and supervisors, we are judged by the performance of our people. It is very much in our interest to get the best from them.
When I was a schoolboy attending one of our much hated theatre classes, I was instructed to read the part of Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw's play 'Pygmalion'. This play is based on a very old story by Ovid (born 43BC) in which a man called Pygmalion, a sculptor in ancient Cyprus, falls in love with the statue of a beautiful woman he has created. The Gods intervene and Cupid kisses the statue's hand. The statue is immediately transformed from an ivory sculpture into a beautiful woman. She then lives happily ever after with Pygmalion.
In his play (later adapted into the musical 'My Fair Lady') Shaw has his protagonist (Henry Higgins) bet his friend (Colonel Pickering) that he can, after just six months of hard work, pass off a common flower girl (Miss Eliza Doolittle) as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party. In the play, Eliza succeeds and Professor Higgins wins his bet.
By the way, if you want to check out the play, it is on at The Garrick Theatre in London until 3 September 2011. It currently stars Rupert Everett as Professor Higgins.
As a boy I struggled to play the part of Professor Higgins, but the concept was very clear to me. Even then, I could see that negative expectations could come to pass as readily as positive ones. I could see that, because our Head Teacher believed or expected most of his pupils to not achieve anything, they did not. And, because he expected that many would go straight from his school to juvenile detention centres, many did. He had consciously, or unconsciously, set up a self fulfilling prophecy. I wonder if we do the same with some of the people we have to deal with day to day?
Achieve a positive effect by having higher expectations
I personally have to be careful not to inadvertently set up a negative outcome through my expectations. I try, instead, to achieve a positive effect by having higher expectations of myself and of others. When I went into management at a young age, I would let my team know my positive expectations of them. For example, when I took on a new operational assistant, I indicated to him that I thought he could be a supervisor (and a good one) within a year - and he was.
I quickly gained a reputation for spotting people with potential. In truth, I gave all my staff the same treatment. Most met my high expectations of them; a few did not for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons being their:
- Fear of failure, and a
- Lack of trust due to bad experiences with other managers in the past
Sometime later, I refined my use of expectation to transform not only an individual's performance, but also tackle the fears mentioned above. I did this by delegating lots of higher level work to my new assistant. Of course, when I delegated work to my assistant, I remained accountable for results, so this took away some of the pressure on the person. A couple of other things were important at that time.
1. A lot of the work I was delegating was not meant to be done at this level in the team, or even at the level above. However, I had no one else available to me at the time and, with some guidance, my assistant was soon able to do some of the higher level work. I deliberately did not mention that the work was two levels higher in case it affected my assistant's confidence. However, in all my dealings, I behaved as though the assistant could do the work.
2. I found that, very quickly, I could confer and confide with my assistant on nearly all important matters. My assistant had become my professional colleague.
After a few weeks, when worries about an ever increasing workload surfaced, a couple of other things seemed important.
1. After explaining how to prioritise work, I took the opportunity to explain the Pygmalion Effect. My assistant's response was thoughtful and positive - and worries about the workload ceased.
2. I then commended my assistant's work to senior management. A few weeks later I was moved elsewhere; eighteen months later my former assistant had gained the two promotions needed to get to supervisor level.
Things felt very different to me
How do we exert the power of expectation? How is the Pygmalion Effect achieved?
Well, I am not absolutely sure, because so few people have used it on me. Yet, the first time they did, things felt very different to me.
I distinctly remember thinking to myself , 'I've never done this work before, but this person expects me to do it'. 'What do I do now?' 'Do I explain my problem or do I just get on with it?'
I was reluctant to say anything because the person seemed to genuinely think I was doing work at the higher level. They did not seem to understand what level I was supposed to work at, and I found it difficult to disappoint a person who had such confidence in me.
So, what did I do? Well, I made a couple of phone calls, spent the night reading up on the issues and the next day - I got on with it.
Looking at people, not as they are, but as you want them to be
It was much later on that I realised the person was just using the power of expectation on me. So, what's the trick here? How does it work?
Well, if there is one, it is the trick of looking at people, not as they are, but as you want them to be. Looking past their current experience and convincing yourself that this person has already reached their potential and, what is more, they are still growing. Then, it is taking the time to talk to people as if they had all the ability you need them to have already. In 'My Fair Lady', Professor Higgins knows that Eliza has potential, but fears failure and lacks confidence. Communicating his expectation built the confidence she needed to succeed.
The important thing here is that you need to be convinced yourself that the person can, and will, do what you want. This is not just a technique. Too many people can tell if you mean it, or if you are trying it on. If you don't believe it - they won't believe it.
Well you might think, 'What about people who are untrained?' 'We cannot just dump the work on them'. That is true, but I recall that the people who used the power of expectation on me were:
1. Rather matter of fact - so as to help me believe this was quite normal for them, and quite normal for me
2. Careful to extend my abilities a little at a time, so that my confidence grew
I now feel that a form of collusion starts to occur with this process, and the two people concerned collaborate rather than contend over who is capable of doing what. This was best illustrated, in my case, when having agreed to do something well above my level - I casually mentioned that there was a training course that might be useful.
It was then that I knew I was taking part in a conspiracy
What I did not say was 'I desperately need this course'. So, without looking up, my boss just said 'You'd better book yourself on it then'. It was then that I knew I was taking part in a conspiracy. It was a conspiracy in which I did not say that I knew what was happening. It was also a conspiracy in which everyone else knew that I knew - but said nothing. And why not? My career and earnings potential were both going along in leaps and bounds and, what is more, I seemed to have a great rapport with my bosses.
I would like to encourage you to have a go at getting better results by using the power of your expectation. Do your best to let go of some higher level work, and treat the people who are going to do the work as if they already have the ability to do most of it.
You may need to stop looking at people as they are, but as you want them to be. A good start might be to raise your expectations of yourself. Maybe you could ask yourself the question: 'How do I want to be?' Then you might ask 'How do I want others to be?' Especially your boss! Always remember that people will either live up to your expectations or they will live down to them.
If you have staff who are not working to their potential, and you think it might help to talk about, it you can contact Frank via the contact tab of his personal website which is www.franknewberry.com