Eddie was a screw-up.
Everyone at the burger place where I had my first job knew it. Eddie just couldn’t seem to do anything right. And because he always screwed up, the rest of us expected him to screw up.
Or might it have been the other way around?
Might it have been that Eddie screwed up because we expected him to screw up?
And might you be inadvertently creating an Eddie on your team?
The truth is that people tend to rise—or fall—to the level of expectation placed on them.People tend to rise or fall to the level of expectation placed on them. Click To Tweet
It’s true in burger joints, it’s true in the classroom, it’s true in parenting, and it’s true in the workplace. It was vividly demonstrated in a 1964 experiment conducted by Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal with teachers at a San Francisco elementary school. I won’t go into the details (you can read about them here), but the Readers Digest version is that when teachers were told that some randomly selected students were gifted, the students performed better. Even though the teachers didn’t consciously do anything differently with these students, there were enough subconscious behaviors (smiling at the “gifted” students more, paying closer attention to them, etc.) that it made a difference.
So let’s come back to your team. As a leader, your team members will tend to rise—or fall—to the level of expectation you place on them. This leads to two pretty obvious questions:
- What expectations are you placing on your team members?
- Are they high enough?
Research cited in Harvard Business Review shows that team members have a greater chance of achieving significant results when they believe that they can—and a big part of that belief comes from the expectations communicated by the leader.
Look, I’m not saying that Eddie could have been a superstar. Back then, he and I were just two teenagers flipping burgers, and I bought into the “Eddie is a screw-up” story just like everyone else. But my subsequent research and experience in leadership have convinced me that Eddie could have been a better employee—maybe even a good one—if the shift managers hadn’t continually expected the worst from him.
So how can you show your team members that you expect the best from them? Here are a few ideas:
- Challenge Them. Give them assignments that will stretch their abilities—and then back off. Resist the urge to micromanage! When you back off, you’re communicating to your team members that you trust them, and that you believe they’re capable of successfully completing the assignment.
- Share the Spotlight. Acknowledge the contributions of your team members in front of others—particularly those higher up the food chain. When Vicki hears you tell your boss, “Vicki was instrumental in the success of this project. Her initiative and attention to detail were critical in raising the game of the entire team,” she’s going to do everything she can to live up to that assessment.
- Reinforce Their Strengths. If, as a parent, you keep reinforcing to your daughter that she’s “such a good problem solver,” she’ll start to see herself as a good problem solver. The same thing is true of your team members. When they’re good at something, reinforce it—specifically. “Nice job, Mike! You’re really good at dealing effectively with upset customers!”
As a leader, you naturally want the best from your team members. But wanting isn’t enough. If you really want the best, let your team members know that you expect the best.