Power of High Expectations

Low expectations are all around us and successful leaders know it. They also know it is their job to raise expectations and help people achieve more in their lives.

Last week I listened to a powerful podcast on This American Life about Daniel Kish, a visually-impaired man known as Batman, who is changing the world of expectations for blind people. Daniel, who uses echolocation or clicks to find his way around, was not held back by his mother when he lost his eyes to cancer at 18 months old. She did not put limits on her expectations and, as a result, Daniel did not either. (Watch this CNN video Seeing Through Sound to see how Daniel is changing the world.)

In the podcast we are reminded of how society and even organizations founded to help people, can unintentionally impose low expectations on others. And we are also reminded that when leaders like Daniel Kish show others how to raise their expectations, they may actually be able to “see” the world differently.

High Expectations at Work. A number of years ago I remember reading an article on expectations in the workplace in Harvard Business Review by J. Sterling Livingston called Pygmalion in Management. The Pygmalion Effect is a theory that says if you place greater expectations on people they will achieve greater things. (Pygmalion was that mythological Greek sculptor who wished his beautiful statue would come to life and it did.)

In the article Livingston reminds us of an experiment done by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in one market with their sales agents. They placed their best agents with their best assistant manager, their weakest performers with their weakest assistant manager, and the rest of the agents with an average assistant market manager.

And what happened? The average agents improved the most. Why? Because the assistant manager they were assigned to made each person feel like they had more potential and then encouraged them. They had greater expectations put on them and they raised their own expectations.

Here are six ideas for positively impacting expectations outlined in Livingston’s article:

  1. Don’t over communicate negative feelings. We should be aware of how we actively and passively communicate disappointment or negative feelings – this can have a demotivating impact.
  2. Clearly communicate positive feelings. Make sure your expectations are clearly stated and can be personally embraced by each person. When possible, customize for the individual and have them articulate their expectations.
  3. Set realistic expectations. Your expectations need to be achievable. If you believe someone can make a big improvement, try starting with a realistic goal so they can see it and achieve it for themselves. If the goal is too high in their mind, they may actually perform more poorly because they are discouraged they cannot reach your expectation.
  4. Expect the most from yourself. Set high expectations for yourself and then get to work on achieving them. This will show others it is possible.
  5. Seize advantage of employees’ critical first year. Research has shown that you have the best chance of molding new behaviors, including a drive to achieve higher expectations, in the first months of a new employee’s time with you. After a year, usually performance behaviors are set.
  6. Make your best managers the first bosses for new hires. Your best managers will show new hires, especially young workers, how to establish high expectations and good work habits for themselves.

Daniel Kish, on his organization’s website, reminds us of this T.S. Eliot quote, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”

Wonderful words to reach with.

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