When I was a police officer, I had a partner. She came from another agency where she had been the first female member of their SWAT team and a detective. By the time I met her, she had done way more as a cop than I ever would. She was one of the three or four people in my career that really wanted to teach me how to be a better cop. When we worked together, I often deferred to her knowledge and experience.

One night we responded to a noise disturbance call. My partner was explaining the situation to the male caller and offering suggestions to resolve his problem. When she finished, the caller turned away from her and asked me if we could have a “man-to-man” discussion about what he should do.

In the end, he got a worse resolution to his complaint because he didn’t take the “girl cop’s” insight seriously. His faulty expectations about good cops only being men led him down a false trail.

****

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a great podcast on National Public Radio, called Invisibillia. The story was about how our expectations affect the behavior of others. A research psychologist named Bob Rosenthal did an experiment on how long it took rats to run a maze.

He took a group of ordinary rats and separated them into cages that he randomly labeled “maze bright” or “maze dull.” He then gave the labeled rats to a group of students, who were told to teach the rats to run the maze.

The results were staggering.

The “smart” rats labeled as “maze bright” finished the experiment with times that were much faster than the“maze dull” rats. Keep in mind; these were identical rats with no difference in the rat’s abilities, only in the expectations of the people who were leading them. Those that expected intelligence got just what they were looking for; so did those who weren’t.

Rosenthal later repeated the experiment with more rats and tougher mazes, and eventually with elementary school students. He devised a way to label them, essentially smart and dumb and made the teachers aware of the labels. Again, those that were expected to do well, did. The others, not so much. He dubbed this the Pygmalion effect … a self-fulfilling prophecy.

He found that the rat trainers and elementary school teachers treated “smart” students differently from “dumb” students. They worked with them differently, encouraged them differently, used different tones of voice and body language. Over time, these subtle differences built upon themselves and made a sizable difference in the performance of the pupils. The “smart” students performed better, the “dumb” performed worse. Both sets of students gravitated towards the expectations of their teachers.

****

As a leader, your expectations carry even more weight than most. What if your biases and expectations are setting some members of your team up for failure? What if you’ve sabotaged the next great idea or the next big win because you already “know” which employees have lots of promise and which are sure to wash out?

Now, I’m not saying that you should always treat everybody the same regardless of your past experience with them. But I am saying that you will get more out of everybody you lead if you show them encouragement, trust them, and expect them to do great things.

Be careful what you expect out of the people you lead. You just might get it.

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One Comment

  • Chris says:

    I’ve seen this first hand. When I was in high school many moons ago, I participated in a three day leadership conference with students from a variety of schools in the local area. Upon arrival, they separated us into four groups, with no rhyme or reason behind the group to which you were assigned. However, from the outset Group 2 seemed to be the conference leaders’ favorite. Whatever another group did, it was compared to Group 2. When a new task was given, the leadership would say something like, “I can’t wait to see what Group 2 comes up with!” You know what? By the end of the conference, Group 2 was actually performing better than everyone else. Unbeknownst to the attendees, we were in an experiment. At the conclusion, the leaders revealed exactly what was said in this article — that expectations are often self-fulfilling. Fascinating to say the least.

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