There are countless sayings about setting high expectations. Aim high. Shoot for the stars. Raise the bar. The belief is that the higher the expectations, the greater the results. But is this actually true? Can the expectations that we set for a person actually affect how well that person performs? Has this been validated scientifically or is it just an old wives tale?
Consider a research study done in education. A third of the students in an average class were selected at the beginning of the school year. The teacher was told that those students were “high potential” achievers and were very likely to bloom that year in her classroom. The teacher was told that even if she did nothing different, those students were likely to excel. However, the teacher was asked to ignore that information and treat all the students the same. The teacher believed she did treat all the students the same. The students were not told about the study at all. Given that the students knew nothing about the study and the teacher said she treated all the students the same, the performance by students labeled “high potential” should have been no different than the rest of the class. However, the results told a different story. Based on their scores on standardized achievement tests, the students identified as “high potential” achievers had greater gains in achievement over the course of the year than the rest of the students, even though the so-called “high potential” had actually been picked at random. The only difference between the “high potential” and the rest of the students was just in the teacher’s mind… in her expectations.
That study has been replicated and validated many times with students worldwide…. but what about with adults? Does this phenomenon also hold true for adults? Could it be applied to the workplace? Can the preset expectations that managers have of employees actually impact their employees’ performance? Do expectations influence work results?
Different Strokes for Different Folks?
Independent research has validated repeatedly that managers often treat employees differently based on their expectations, and that the difference in the manager’s expectations affects the employees’ performance. Most managers simply do not treat employees the same, even though it is what they intend to do and think they are doing. Consider an experiment done with two employees. Both employees had the same education, background and experience. One came with glowing recommendations. The other had had a problem with a past supervisor.
In that scenario, the manager had higher expectations for the new employee that came with glowing recommendations. Because of the manager’s higher expectations, he set higher goals and standards for that employee. The manager encouraged that employee more, was more available for help and advice, and recognized and praised that employee’s achievements more. As a result, that employee rose to the occasion and delivered a stellar performance.
In turn, a manager had lower expectations for the new employee who had a problem in the past with a different supervisor. Subconsciously, the manager set goals and standards just a bit lower for the employee who had past difficulties. The manager was a little less available for coaching and support, and slightly more critical of the work output. The manager was less willing to praise achievement, and quicker to correct and criticize. As a consequence, the employee’s performance was lower, and motivation became an issue. Eventually that employee left the company.
The Power of Expectations
This phenomenon has been dubbed “Expectancy Theory” or the “Pygmalion Effect”. The concept is simple yet profound. People respond to the way they are treated and respond in kind. If treated with high expectations based on the belief that they have the ability to perform, individuals tend to rise to those expectations. If performance is recognized, supported and rewarded they continue to increase in competence. As competence increases, so does confidence. Increased confidence in turn pushes them to “raise the bar” further and competence continues to develop. This is known as a “virtuous reinforcing cycle.” Positive performance builds on itself.
Likewise, the reverse is true. If a manager delivers the message – perhaps quite subtly or even subconsciously – that he doubts an employee’s ability, the employee will be more cautious and hesitant. That caution and hesitancy creates lower levels of performance, which is then seen as confirmation of lesser abilities. Because performance is lower, the manager is less willing to give the time and attention and the bar is set lower still. Over time confidence erodes. With less confidence, performance continues to lag and the individual spirals downward into a negative chain reaction known as a “vicious reinforcing cycle.” It is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Pygmalion effect was first described by J. Sterling Livingston in the September/October, 1988 issue of the Harvard Business Review. In the article, Livingston said “The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them.” While the Pygmalion effect enables staff to excel in response to the manager’s message that they are capable of success and expected to succeed, it can also undermine staff performance when subtle messages from the manager says the opposite.
Building Up or Tearing Down Employees
The Pygmalion effect means each manager has a great deal of individual power to either build up or tear down employees and, as a result, either increase or decrease productivity. The unskilled manager leaves scars on the careers of employees, cuts deeply into their self-esteem and distorts their image of themselves as workers. But the skillful manager who has high expectations of those he manages can boost their self-confidence, grow their capabilities, and thus increase their productivity. Imagine how performance might improve if all supervisors communicated positive thoughts about people to people? If the supervisor actually believed every employee has the ability to make a positive contribution at work, the telegraphing of that message, either consciously or unconsciously, would positively affect employee performance.
Expectancy theory is real, and how it is applied at work can have profound impact on the overall performance of an organization. Managers must set high expectations and fully expect and believe that employees can and will respond to them. Managers should help employees to achieve goals, praise results, and recognize achievements consistently by all employees. That alone can increase productivity and enhance the bottom line.
Quote of the Week
“Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.”
Stephen R. Covey
© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.