Do your expectations constrain how you lead?


Expectations are normal but holding them blindly can lead to negative results.

Research from psychologists at Princeton University, Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, found it only takes a tenth of a second to form an impression of someone we haven’t met before – purely on their facial expression.

That’s not solely how we categorise people, we also place expectations based on the advice and opinions of others. And it can actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to a 2001 study, which showed that our opinions of others determines how cooperative they are.

Different research by Psychologist Robert Rosenthal looked at the effect expectations can have on how teachers treat students, and the resulting impact on the student’s performance. In the experiment, teachers were told the names of students that were expected to do well through the year.  These names however, were picked at random; the selected students were no brighter or duller than other students in the class.  The research found the teachers treated those students differently – they were more supportive and friendly.  They were also more willing to spend time with them and provide them with feedback.  Not surprisingly, their performance improved. Expectations play out in the workplace all the time.

Think back to the last time you hired someone for a role.  What’s one of the first things you did?

It’s likely you rang someone you know or were connected with to get feedback on the person you were thinking of hiring. It’s a sound, logical step. When we are hiring people or moving to a new leadership role we often seek other people’s opinions on a person’s performance.  This type of checking is commonplace because it can help you better understand a person’s capability, their fit with the team, and how they may perform in the role.

Why you shouldn’t adopt the expectations of others

The challenge, however, is even well-intentioned advice can often be misplaced. This is because different people thrive under different types of leadership.

If I reflect on my time as a corporate leader, there were many occasions when a colleague’s feedback on a potential team member turned out to be different to my experience of the person. People who were pigeon-holed as a certain type of worker turned out to be star performers in the team.

The solution to this dilemma is to make sure we seek advice from multiple sources. And if you have inherited a team, take the time to really get to know each person and their strengths and weaknesses, before too quickly identifying the ‘stars’ and ‘laggards’.  

As part of this process, consider getting each member of the team to undertake some form of strengths based assessment.  These insights will help you better understand their strengths and what you can do to support them being used in the workforce. This is useful as the evidence shows that people who use their strengths at work are more productive and engaged.

The next part is to suspend judgement and be open to the fact that your first impression of a person may not be accurate.   Keeping a more open mind means you are less likely to be coloured by other people’s expectations, and less likely to let their experience impact your opinions and decision making.

Expectations. We all have them.  When they constrain how a person leads and therefore the effectiveness of their leadership style it’s time to reign them in.

Michelle Gibbings is a change and leadership expert and founder of Change Meridian.

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Do your expectations constrain how you lead?


Expectations are normal but holding them blindly can lead to negative results.

Research from psychologists at Princeton University, Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, found it only takes a tenth of a second to form an impression of someone we haven’t met before – purely on their facial expression.

That’s not solely how we categorise people, we also place expectations based on the advice and opinions of others. And it can actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to a 2001 study, which showed that our opinions of others determines how cooperative they are.

Different research by Psychologist Robert Rosenthal looked at the effect expectations can have on how teachers treat students, and the resulting impact on the student’s performance. In the experiment, teachers were told the names of students that were expected to do well through the year.  These names however, were picked at random; the selected students were no brighter or duller than other students in the class.  The research found the teachers treated those students differently – they were more supportive and friendly.  They were also more willing to spend time with them and provide them with feedback.  Not surprisingly, their performance improved. Expectations play out in the workplace all the time.

Think back to the last time you hired someone for a role.  What’s one of the first things you did?

It’s likely you rang someone you know or were connected with to get feedback on the person you were thinking of hiring. It’s a sound, logical step. When we are hiring people or moving to a new leadership role we often seek other people’s opinions on a person’s performance.  This type of checking is commonplace because it can help you better understand a person’s capability, their fit with the team, and how they may perform in the role.

Why you shouldn’t adopt the expectations of others

The challenge, however, is even well-intentioned advice can often be misplaced. This is because different people thrive under different types of leadership.

If I reflect on my time as a corporate leader, there were many occasions when a colleague’s feedback on a potential team member turned out to be different to my experience of the person. People who were pigeon-holed as a certain type of worker turned out to be star performers in the team.

The solution to this dilemma is to make sure we seek advice from multiple sources. And if you have inherited a team, take the time to really get to know each person and their strengths and weaknesses, before too quickly identifying the ‘stars’ and ‘laggards’.  

As part of this process, consider getting each member of the team to undertake some form of strengths based assessment.  These insights will help you better understand their strengths and what you can do to support them being used in the workforce. This is useful as the evidence shows that people who use their strengths at work are more productive and engaged.

The next part is to suspend judgement and be open to the fact that your first impression of a person may not be accurate.   Keeping a more open mind means you are less likely to be coloured by other people’s expectations, and less likely to let their experience impact your opinions and decision making.

Expectations. We all have them.  When they constrain how a person leads and therefore the effectiveness of their leadership style it’s time to reign them in.

Michelle Gibbings is a change and leadership expert and founder of Change Meridian.

Leave a reply

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