• Podcast

Episode 9: Expectations & Self-fulfilling Prophecies: What We Expect Is What We Get

  • By Dallas McLaughlin
  • March 7, 2024

Below is a transcript from an episode of my podcast, Unconsidered. Unconsidered can be heard on all major podcast networks.

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Hey, It’s Dallas, and I have a question for you.

Let’s imagine you’ve just taken on a new role as a high-powered executive, and you’re in charge of leading a team of… let’s say 30 individuals within the organization. This could be a software development company, a sales organization, a healthcare startup… whatever. But it’s you inheriting a group of individuals that you didn’t hire and people you don’t really know anything about.

So, one of the first things you do in your new role is hire one of those fancy consultancies to perform a 360 review of each of your new team members.

As part of their review, the consultancy meets with each team member to assess things like social skills, core competency, hard skills, soft skills, past work performance and more.

This consultancy comes back to you and gives you a list of your top-performing employees. These are the employees they’ve decided are the most likely to overachieve in the upcoming year. The employees that are most likely to accept training, acquire new skills, complete more projects and produce at an overall higher level of work.

So my question is really more of a thought exercise. You’ve been given your list of 6-8 employees that the consultancy believes are going to be your star employees. How does this impact your overall management style? Do you manage these 6-8 employees differently? What about the other 20ish employees who didn’t show up on this list of top-performers?

Take a second and think about how you’d approach this…

Okay so, fast forward a year… and guess what? The employees that were identified as the likely top-performers, actually were! Congratulations to you, congratulations to the consultancy. Job well done everybody.

But… what if I told you the consultancy didn’t actually do…. Anything? I don’t mean in the way that most consultants do nothing, but what if I told you that if you started with your same 30 employees, randomly selected and a labeled a different group of employees as your potential high-performers, that this other randomly selected group would have then been the stars of the organization that year?

That can’t be right, right? That would undermine everything we think about assessments, reviews, our own candidate selection processes, and our own ability to coach, manage, and foster talent.

But… There’s a lot of research that would suggest that when people – meaning employees, students, athletes – when they are pre-selected to be future high-performers – or even low-performers – they are far more likely to actually become whatever that designation is than had they not been designated as that “thing” in the first place.

There is definitely something interesting happening here, so let’s take a quick break and then we’ll dive in….

The Research

The question that I opened this episode with is based on research conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in 1968. Their study – which I think has a pretty cool name – is referred to as the “Pygmalion in the Classroom” experiment.

The name comes from Pygmalion, the Greek sculptor who fell in love with his own creation, a statue he had carved.

The “Pygmalion in the Classroom” experiment was focused on trying to understand how a teacher’s own expectations of his or her students actually impacts their academic performance. Basically, it’s a study on expectations and – spoiler alert – the self-fulling nature of those expectations.

So, at the beginning of the school year, researchers administered an IQ test to elementary school students to identify the students who were “academic bloomers” – or those that were expected to have a significant intellectual growth spurt during the year.

Side note: if you have young students in your home, you know that this is actually a thing that happens. Except, instead of IQ tests, this is done through what we refer to as standardized testing and it’s the mechanism schools use to sort kids into specific classes at a very young age. So, keep this in the back of your mind.

But Rosenthal and Jacobson didn’t actually sort students based on the results of an IQ test – or a standardized test for that matter. They just randomly selected about 20% of the students and informed the teachers that these were the students who were the academic bloomers, and that this group of students showed amazing potential for intellectual development throughout the upcoming school year.

To reiterate, the selected students were not identified based on any special criteria, it was just a purely randomized test.

But at the end of the school year, the researchers found that the students labeled as “academic bloomers” showed significantly higher intellectual development compared to their peers – the other 80% of the class – who were not randomly selected and artificially labeled as “academic bloomers.”

So, what happened?

What happened is the teachers’ own expectations of these “academic bloomers” influenced their own behaviors, their own teaching methods, which resulted in increased interaction, support, and encouragement for “bloomers”, and less interaction and encouragement for the “non-bloomers.”

The difference in the academic performance of these students was not due to any inherent differences in technical ability, intelligence, ability to learn, home environments, or anything of that nature. Or even their classrooms. Remember, they were randomly labeled at the start of the school year.

The difference in their performance was entirely a result of the teachers’ beliefs and corresponding behavior that were predetermined by that label – artificially – at the start of the school year.

The teachers believed that a certain group of students would result in their own highest and best work, their highest return on investment, and they focused their attention on those students.

The “Pygmalion in the Classroom” study demonstrated that teacher expectations, whether positive or negative, can have a significant impact on students’ academic performance. The study highlighted the self-fulfilling nature of expectations and how they can shape the trajectories of individuals, particularly in an educational setting.

This study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson has had a lasting influence on educational psychology and has been cited in numerous subsequent studies and discussions on the Pygmalion Effect. It emphasizes the importance of recognizing and managing expectations to create a positive and supportive learning environment for all students.

And the findings of this study have broader applications beyond education. Understanding the Pygmalion Effect can help us all understand and reconcile how our own expectations can and are influencing outcomes in all sorts of contexts – including ourselves, our relationships, our businesses and our workplaces.

Why It Works

Okay, so whether you’re like me – a sole proprietor of a single person business – or maybe you’re running a small startup, or even if you’re a cog in a 500 person organization – The Pygmalion Effect is impacting you every single day.

Let’s start with the obvious, where this whole episode started: Managers who have high expectations for their team members are likely to see improved performance from their team members. Just like in the classroom with “academic bloomers” and “non-bloomers” – when leaders express confidence in their employees abilities, and this confidence is demonstrated through increased interactions and support, those team members are shown to perform at a higher level.

But this goes both ways. Leaders who lack-confidence in their team members, who routinely walk around with a doom and gloom attitude, constantly threatening and demeaning their team members, will naturally create a team of low-performers, who have no motivation to perform and are unlikely to try to increase their overall production and skill-level, perpetuating the whole cycle. We’ve all been on the receiving end of this and know it to be true. We don’t need a study to prove that.

But not only does The Pygmalion Effect influence team morale, it can influence decisions related to employee development. Leaders with high-expectations of a team member communicate more effectively, they provide constructive feedback, and consistently offer guidance for improvement. This fosters a culture of continuous learning and development. If a leader has low-expectations of an employee, they are not going to invest the same level of effort in providing feedback or guidance to that employee.

This reminds me of something Randy Pausch said as he gave The Last Lecture which – paraphrased was him basically saying – “when you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you about it anymore that means they’ve given up on you. The people continuously providing feedback and criticism are often the ones telling you they still love you and care about you and they just want to make you better.”

You should actually go watch that.

In a similar vein, The Pygmalion Effect can influence decisions related to employee promotions. When a CEO sees an employee who they believe “has what it takes” to move up in an organization, it’s far more likely that that employee will receive additional training and opportunities for advancement. This creates the common trope of the highly qualified, tenured employee getting passed over for a promotion that instead goes to the less qualified, less experienced candidate who seems to just be the favorite employee of the boss.

This would be an example of the sculptor falling in love with their sculpture.

As individuals it also impacts us as the expectations that we set for ourselves has a major impact on our own performance. Leaders who set high standards for their own achievements – who hold themselves accountable to a high degree of responsibility and performance – are more likely to themselves achieve a higher level of performance, attain more accolades and further advance their own careers or businesses.

That also goes to say that if you really don’t expect much out of yourself, that’s exactly what you’ll get.

Again this makes me think of the famous quote by Kurt Vonnegut which reads, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Zooming in further from how The Pygmalion Effect impacts organizations to go deeper into the individual, when employees believe that their ideas are valued and that they have the support of leadership – and this is clearly articulated up and down the organization – unsurprisingly, team members are more likely to contribute creatively to problem-solving and innovation which then snowballs into the culture, or the very DNA of an organization.

This even impacts our personal relationships. In romantic relationships, people tend to behave more like their partner’s expectation of them. If one person expects their partner to treat them well and do their share of housework, the Pygmalion Effect tells us that both partners will probably change their behavior to reciprocate that expectation. And like our previous examples, it cuts both ways. Partners who have low expectations of each other create downward spirals for each other, creating toxic environments and toxic relationships.

What To Do About It

Okay so now we have a pretty clear understanding of how expectations – good or bad – can create a sort of self-fulling prophecy bringing those expectations to life. But as with all of these things, we learn about them one day, then it’s noon on a Wednesday, you’re buried in meetings, you realize you and your team are way behind on multiple deadlines and forget all about all of this stuff.

So what are the key points that we need to keep top of mind?

It might sound cliche, but it starts with fostering a positive and inclusive workplace culture where employees feel valued, supported, and encouraged. One where you’re promoting open communication and collaboration with the expectation that it will produce a higher level of work.

Also somewhere on the cliche spectrum, you as a leader, absolutely have to display a positive mindset. You have to show resilience. You need to lead through example and exude confidence backed by a strong work ethic. Your behavior sets the tone for the organization, influencing how your employees approach their own challenges and opportunities.

Next, you – again as the leader that all of these people look to – have to acknowledge and celebrate achievements within the organization. We learned that recognition reinforces the positive expectations you have for your team. Since people tend to rise to these higher expectations, this recognition encourages continued excellence.

And as the talent level grows and as you win more awards and your team’s overall achievements endlessly grow, you have to ensure that the tools, support and resources your team has access to are also growing at a relative rate. This includes access to new tools, outside training, and a supportive work environment because as people are challenged to grow, as they are challenged to innovate, as they reach new heights, they are bound to make mistakes along the way.

These “mistakes,” or challenges, need to be framed as opportunities for learning and development, and used to ingrain a growth mindset into the DNA of your team where these challenges are used to increase resilience and innovation within the organization.

This resilience creates what Nassim Taleb describes as anti-fragility. This is when organizations are strengthened – not weakened – by adversity.

Lastly, you absolutely have to assess the impact of your leadership style on the team. All the time. You have to be willing to adapt and adjust your approach based on feedback and evolving expectations. What is working for your team today, may not work a month from now. High-performing teams often outpace their leader – which ironically is a symptom of high-functioning leaders.

The best teams I’ve ever led have been loaded with talent I couldn’t ever touch, because that wasn’t my job. My job – now your job as a leader – is to foster talent. Support it, grow it, mentor it, challenge it, praise it, recognize it, encourage it, push it and mold today’s practitioners into tomorrow’s leaders. Leaders who will carry on the tradition of managing a team of innovators, creators and makers who rise up to the high expectations that have been placed on them.

Or, you have another option if this all sounds too woo-woo.

You can choose to execute some or all of the high-functioning organizational and leadership traits I’ve described over the last 15-minutes, or you can choose to do the opposite.

You can be the narcissistic leader we’ve all had in our pasts, which by the way, most of us took our talents elsewhere, likely because of them.

You can demean, criticize, hire yes-men and women, under communicate, chase talent out of the building when they get too good, fail to recognize innovation, undermine trust, keep your employees beneath you, never give them a chance to grow and innovate, drive results through intimidation, fear and threats.

There is actually a long list of successful sociopath CEOs.

But at the end of the day, you need to decide. You need to decide what type of leader you will be. What type of business you want to work on and in everyday. You get to decide what your legacy is.

So decide.

Dallas McLaughlin

The Business Owner's Guide To

Better Decision Making

As a business owner you are inherently a decision maker and it’s a function of your job to make consistently good decisions in critical moments. But no two decisions are exactly same. Having a deep understanding of how decisions are made and having the tools to create consistent decision making frameworks are necessary to make more rapid and impactful decisions on a daily basis.

Dallas McLaughlin LLC

🌵 Scottsdale, Arizona