High expectations lead to excellent performance

Some managers treat their subordinates in a way that leads to superior performance. How are they different from managers who fail to develop top-notch employees? A subtle yet powerful key lies in the manager's expectations of subordinates. If the expectations are high, yet attainable, productivity is likely to be excellent.

This doesn't happen because a manager wishes it, nor does it have anything to do with the power of positive thinking.


Physicians, behavioral scientists and educators have long recognized the influence of one person’s expectations on another’s behavior. In fact, as a child, you probably experienced the power of positive (or negative) expectations of a coach, parent or teacher.


If you were lucky enough to have a coach, for example, who believed in your athletic abilities, chances are your performance met the coach's high expectations and exceeded your own. This phenomenon, known as the Pygmalion Effect, or the "self-fulfilling prophecy," is a powerful influence in business, as well.


Studies, including one conducted by Berlew and Hall at American Telephone and Telegraph Col., show the power of high expectations to be most significant during the first years an employee is with an organization.


This critical period of learning is a time when the trainee is ready to change or develop in the direction of the company's expectations. Consequently, the manager of a new (or recently transferred) employee is likely to be a very influential person in the employee's career.


Managers who have been found to be positive "Pygmalions" are usually also the best managers. (Pygmalion was a sculptor in Greek mythology who, by his effort and will, brought a statue to life.)


They have certain characteristics in common that make the self-fulfilling prophecy work to their advantage:

  • They believe in themselves and have confidence in what they are doing. 
  • They hold a strong belief in their ability to develop talents of their employees, to select, train and motivate them. Because of this, successful managers are careful to select only those subordinates they "know" will succeed. They are slow to give up on a subordinate because it means giving up on themselves. Thus, they try that much harder to make sure the employee succeeds.
  • They have the ability to communicate to subordinates that their expectations are realistic and achievable. (If employees are encouraged to strive for unattainable goals, they eventually give up trying and settle for results that are lower than they are capable of achieving.)
  • They believe that subordinates can learn to make decisions and to take the initiative. They encourage this behavior.
  • They prefer the rewards that come from the success and increased skill of their subordinates to the rewards they get from their own supervisors. 

How do these beliefs translate to actual behavior?

Robert Rosenthal, of Harvard University, offered a four-factor theory to explain the influence that produces the self-fulfilling prophecy. These factors include both non-verbal and verbal forms of communicating expectations.


Managers who have been led to expect good things from their employees and others appear to provide the following:


The manager sets an accepting, encouraging social and emotional climate for employees with more potential. This includes warmth, attention, smiling, nodding the head appreciatively, all the positive, non-verbal kinds of communication.


The manager gives these employees more verbal clues about their performance -- more reaction, more praise, and sometimes even more criticism, all of which help to teach the employee what is needed for improvement.


The manager will teach more material, and more difficult material, to employees who supposedly have more potential.


The manager encourages the "chosen" employee to ask more questions, urges him or her to respond to instructions, allows more time to do a job correctly, and gives the employee the benefit of any doubt.


What seems to be critical in the communication of expectations is not so much what the boss SAYS, but the WAY HE BEHAVES. Indifferent and non-committal treatment is the kind of behavior that communicates low expectations and leads to poor performance.


The startling fact is that managers are more effective in communicating low expectations to their subordinates than in communicating high expectations, even though most managers believe exactly the opposite.


Clearly, the way you treat your employees on a day-to-day basis can make all the difference.


For more information write: Reprint Service, Harvard Business Review, Soldiers Field, Boston, Mass. 02163; (Phone: 617-495-6192); article: "Pygmalion in Management," J. Sterling Livingston.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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