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Does It Matter What You Think?

 

by Jason Reep, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, Director of Learning & Inclusion
Published January 5, 2017, Executive Update Newsletter, Volume 37, Issue 1

Attitude makes all the difference. We often hear people say this but do you believe it? Do you believe that looking for the good in things increases the likelihood of finding the good in them or that expecting something bad to occur will change how you respond when a bad thing happens? There are a number of researchers who have studied how our expectations affect our behaviors, impact our immediate decisions and help determine our future choices. These beliefs and choices drive our careers, relationships, and interests.

For many of us, when we reflect on our attitudes we realize that, “my beliefs impact my daily interactions and my future interests and aspirations.” This is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe something (good or bad) will happen and I do things that cause or increase the chance of those things happening. Research also tells us that our beliefs could influence the behaviors and actions of others. If I believe that an employee is intelligent, motivated, and can achieve great things in our organization, might my beliefs increase the likelihood that the employee will be great? Alternatively, if I believe that another employee is lazy, difficult to work with, and will not last long in the organization, might my negative beliefs drive an employee down or out of the organization? The answer to both questions is a resounding “YES, my beliefs about another can have profound impact on their behavior (good or bad).”

This impact is heightened when a person has power and authority. Much of the early research regarding these phenomenon were done in the classroom with teachers and students. Teachers that knew they were receiving students others thought of as “high achievers” often set higher expectations on them than those who exhibited behavior or learning difficulties in the past. Teachers that knew nothing about student histories tended to treat them “more equally.” The influence of others does not end in childhood, though. Research with adults in the workplace has found the same results. Leaders can make or break an employee’s experience in the workplace depending on the expectations or beliefs that he or she expresses about an individual’s likelihood of success.

Having a positive influence on an employee is an example of the Pygmalion effect – employees live up to the expectations that are expressed to them. The Golem effect is the other side of the equation – when employees live down to your expectations as they know you will not expect or encourage more. Our actions are not always consciously exhibited so leaders (team leads, trainers, supervisors, managers, etc.) must be intentional when working with others as they have more of an impact than most think about. While the beliefs of the leader are not the only determinants of success or failure, it is important to remember that what you think as a leader impacts how you interact with employees (AND how they interact with others or respond to work assignments and expectations). Your interactions reinforce your expectations with the employee and thus employees alter their behavior to receive rewards and positive recognition within these interactions. In that life tends to be cyclical, the employee’s behavior likely reinforces the leader’s original feelings which will be reinforced and returned. The cycle looks something like this:
 
    1. The Leader’s beliefs about employees influence… 
    2. The Leader’s actions toward employees which impacts… 
    3. The Employee’s belief about their own capabilities which cause… 
    4. The employee’s actions at work and drive… 
    5. The employee’s outcomes at work that reinforce…point #1

Although much of the research regarding self-fulfilling prophecies has been done with school-age children and their teachers, there exists interesting research with military cadets, welders, and many other adults that supports the results found within education. The researchers pre-test participants and then tell the leaders which individuals tested the highest (or lowest) for indicators of success. The researchers then observe and record what happens in the interactions between the leaders and employees. The results are the same – those that were said to have the highest potential do the best and those that were said to be most challenged do poorly. The important thing is that in the studies there typically was no “pre-test.” The subjects are randomly selected from the group and the leader’s behavior difference is driven simply by the fact that the leader believed the employees would succeed (or not). More time is spent with those identified as having high potential and more acceptance of mistakes or average work for the “best” (knowing that more will be coming) allowing stronger relationships to be developed. Those “pre-destined” to fail were given fewer chances and less attention.

There is a reason why people say that employees do not leave an organization, “they leave their supervisor.” We have seen that leaders who do a great job developing employees and building strong relationships have people who “want” to work for them. It is not uncommon that when a leader transfers to another part of the organization employees are willing to transfer with them to continue working with that leader. These leaders understand the power of expectations and how to harness them to strengthen their employees and organization.

The Employers’ Association has helped West Michigan employers develop strong leaders (from technically competent achievers) since 1939. We are excited to launch our updated leadership programs, Introduction to Leadership and Core Leadership Skills to help exceptional employees enter management by helping them transition from “doer” to “leader.” These programs provide participants with basic Leadership skills inclusive of: 

    •  Setting and communicating appropriate goals and expectations 
    •  Providing adequate and targeted feedback 
    •  Identifying and working with different DiSC styles 
    •  Refining communication skills 
    •  Techniques to engage and reward employees 
    •  Coaching employees for improved performance 
    •  Developing and fostering effective teamwork 
    •  Documenting and delivering corrective actions

If you are interested in learning more about TEA’s leadership programs please contact Jason Reep at 616-698-1167.