Performance problems? You get what you expect
In a study conducted by Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal and California elementary school principal Lenore Jacobson called the Pygmalion Effect, it was proved that teachers’ expectations enhance students’ performances. Pygmalion, according to Greek mythology, was a sculptor who created an ivory statue of a woman. Funnily enough, he was said to not be attracted to women. He was so enamored by his creation that he said if he could find a woman like his statue, he would love her. He gave an offering at the altar of Aphrodite to seal his secret desire. On his return, he kissed the lips of his statue and she actually came to life. Aphrodite granted his wish. This Greek myth and subsequent study teach us a powerful lesson: you get what you expect.
When studied in the classroom, teachers were told that their students were slated to be top performers and treated them as such, based on testing of the students’ knowledge before and after the study. As we translate this to the workplace, studies also show a positive correlation between leaders’ expectations and followers’ performances.
What is the significance of this?
Could it be that organizations are experiencing problems in performance, productivity and people in general because of the expectations being held about them? How can leaders’ expectations affect these areas?
Every organization has top performers, average performers and low performers. Jack Welch, CEO of GE, made famous the act of purging the organization every year of what he termed as the bottom 10 percent of employees. These were those employees who were under performing or not performing at all. His success as a CEO was in part attributed to this management strategy. This plagues leaders in many organizations around the world: What do you do to engage the unengaged, underperforming employee? Do we simply get rid of the person, or do we work with them until they improve? Both strategies seem to work; however, strategic human resource practice supports the ongoing development of employees. After all, even though a low performer may not be my problem anymore, he or she may become someone else’s. Sometimes people are not performing because they are not expected to. They may not be challenged beyond the routine or they may be too frustrated to give their all. It is imperative that organizations have the processes in place to determine reasons for poor performance and offer solutions to address it.
Another management strategy captures the thought that you get what you inspect as well. So if you want performance to improve, not only should you expect more, but you should measure more. Ongoing feedback between managers and employees can provide the environment needed to correct, train, coach, counsel and ultimately improve performance. It allows employees to understand that there are consequences for their actions or inaction, and also help managers to identify employees who are not showing improvement and why that may be. It could very well be that an employee may be in a role that is not suited to his or her ability.
While this term became most popular in manufacturing environments, productivity, the act of getting out what you put in, applies to all types of organizations. Managers often complain that there are people on their teams who are pushing hard and making things happen and there are others who are only taking up space and not contributing at all. How can leaders’ expectations affect this? I know when I have worked with various leaders through the course of my career, my output tended to be more based on what my leader expected. I found that I had to be more self-motivated with leaders who had no drive or direction; otherwise, I would fall into the trap of not performing as well. The leader who wanted more from me got it. The leader who didn’t set an expectation left me to my own devices to figure out what top performance looked like with the hope that my picture looked like theirs at the end of the day. Bottom line: Challenge people to do more and they will, even if it is unwillingly.
At the end of it all, leaders must value people. In my experience as a corporate trainer and HR consultant, organizations that do not support training and development, recognition and advancement of employees do not value people. That may be a harsh statement but it is true. Organizational leaders who do not care about employee working conditions, terms of employment, development and recognition of employees have the mindset that employees should just be grateful they have a job and a paycheck, especially in a depressed economy. Strangely enough, before the economy was declining, they held that belief so it can’t just be about saving money. As an HR professional, I have seen where the function of human resources is gravely misunderstood and under-supported to the point where HR has lost its footing as a beneficial part of an organization but has rather become a transactional role to keep organizations out of possible litigation or granted just enough powers to ‘keep the natives happy’. Positive HR strategy and programming come out of the belief and philosophy of that organization’s top leadership’s view of people. Are people truly assets and resources, or are they a means to end? You get what you expect. If you treat me that way, that’s what I will give you – or, I will simply leave to find pastures that are greener and the shepherds a little nicer. Take some time to examine the performance problems you may be having and see if it may be connected to the level of expectation that you have of your team. The results may surprise you.
• Simmone L. Bowe, MSc, SPHRi, is a seasoned human resource and organization development consultant & trainer, speaker, author, and mentor who focuses on helping business owners, leaders and professionals diagnose their people and performance problems and implement strategic solutions. For comments, queries or to book a consultation, email firstname.lastname@example.org.