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Driving Performance Through Higher Expectations

The manager of a southeast Michigan public transportation organization was describing a leadership dilemma to me one day. In exchange for a paycheck, the manager explained, he asks only three things of each bus driver: show up, show up on time, and show up in uniform. With such simple expectations, he wondered, why is he faced with ongoing absenteeism, tardiness, and dress code violations?

A leader's expectations often create self-fulfilling prophecies, in which employees live up or down to what is expected of them. For example, when the greatest challenge their boss assigns is to dress properly each morning, workers sense a lack of trust--and an expectation of failure--from that supervisor. As a result, employees expect less from themselves. Their performance reflects those low expectations, completing a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How can employees sense a leader's low expectations? As a professor of social psychology at Harvard, Robert Rosenthal studied the concept extensively in the field of education. By convincing teachers that testing had indicated which students were about to enter a period of academic and intellectual blooming, he was able to manipulate the teachers' expectations for their students. Rosenthal found that teachers behaved differently toward students for whom they had low expectations. Notice the similarities to leaders who expect less from certain workers:

- Low expectation students were seated far from the teacher, and sometimes in groups;
- Teachers paid less attention to low expectation students in academic situations, calling on them less often to answer questions or to make public demonstrations;
- Low expectation students were allowed less time to answer questions and deprived of clues or follow-up questions;
- Teachers smiled less often at, and maintained less eye contact with, low expectation students;
- Low expectation students were criticized more frequently for incorrect responses;
- Low expectation students were praised less frequently for successful answers, but praised more frequently for marginal or inadequate responses;
- Teachers gave less accurate and less detailed feedback to low expectation students;
- Teachers demanded less work--and effort--from low expectation students.

Although forming expectations seems unavoidable, altering the internal beliefs of leaders can prevent self-fulfilling prophecies from developing. Surprisingly, it's the expectations leaders have for themselves that must be changed. Leaders must believe, regardless of their perceptions of an employee's potential, in their own abilities to teach and inspire. Leaders who consider themselves highly effective are more likely to view all workers as reachable, teachable, and worthy of attention. Managers who attribute their employees' accomplishments to their own success as leaders are more likely to adapt their behavior to help their workers grow.

To Freely Give Away Their Authority leaders must set high expectations for their employees. But more importantly, leaders must be more demanding of themselves.
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