Humans are so in tune with the expectations others place on them that even a man without eyes can learn to ride a bike.
When Daniel Kish’s eyes were removed as a child, due to a rare form of eye cancer, one of the first things he did when he came home from hospital was try to climb the neighbour’s fence. Not long after, he taught himself how to ride a bike.
He’d zoom down his street’s steep hill with childlike abandon, much to the horror of onlooking neighbours. “How can you allow him to do that?” they asked Daniel’s mother. “He’s going to seriously hurt himself!”
Eventually, that day came. Daniel’s bike ran full speed into a telegraph pole and he returned home bloody-faced with a few less teeth. His mother’s reaction was an incredibly important moment for the man he’d become. Rather than wrap him in cotton wool from then on, she surprised him that Christmas with a brand new bike. Her expectations of what he could achieve did not waver due to his difference.
As an adult, Daniel has brought that mentality around expectations to the forefront of everything he does. He is now president of World Access for the Blind. He still rides a bike, he hikes mountains, climbs tall trees, and has taught himself to see without eyes through a method called ‘echolocation’ – a common way for some animals, like bats, to navigate their way through the world.
The high expectations Daniel’s mother held for him are a lesson to workplaces everywhere. If the expectations of a blind man’s mother are why he teaches himself to ‘see’, then how much untapped potential in your office could be hidden by false assumptions? Expectations are almost as powerful as our actual skill sets, and they can either make or break us.
The Golem effect
When a superior expects poor performance of an employee, many employees will fulfil that expectation even if they’re capable of exceeding it. This is known as ‘The Golem Effect’ and it causes detrimental outcomes for team and organisations, such as: lower productivity, a lack of trust, opportunistic behaviour, and high turnover rates.
This creates a damaging cycle. A manager (often inadvertently) places low expectations on an employee, that employee’s quality of work is affected, the manager may then micromanage or become overly critical, and this continues in a cycle until there’s some kind of intervention or the employee quits or is terminated.
“If we look at the difference in outcomes for someone who has low expectations placed on them by a manager versus someone who has high expectations placed on them, we see the employee with low expectations believing their manager doesn’t trust them or doesn’t have confidence in their ability,” says Nicole Visedo, senior workplace consultant at HR Assured.
“The impact then is not just on their performance outcomes, but on their morale and there’s a cyclical effect to come from that.”
The opposite of this, according to the Journal of Business and Management, is the ‘Pygmalion Effect’. This is when superiors place high expectations on their subordinates in an effort to increase performance levels. Of course, this too has its downfalls: employee burnout, increased stress and anxiety, and an unbalanced work/life balance to name just a few.
How can organisations find a happy medium?
Fiona Krautil CPHR, founder and principal consultant at Diversity Knowhow, says in order to overcome the low expectation barriers that are firmly rooted in many organisations, we need to focus on the power of storytelling and information with graphic impact.
“You end up having the same old conversations if you’re not presenting people with new content. [You have to] present leaders with the latest bias research, the latest systemic change research, the newest case studies.”
In her many years working in the D&I space, one stand out example comes to mind. Krautil was working in the diversity team at one of the major banks about ten years ago. They had a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander trainees go through their first Indigenous employment program. The year 12 students were from outback NSW, and their end goal was to secure a role with a bank in one of the major cities. “HR tried really hard to shop around to find people to take them on, but we were getting nowhere,” says Krautil.
“We’re hardwired to see difference before we see similarity.” – Fiona Krautil CPHR
She and the HR team had to take a different approach. They made a film interviewing the trainees and their parents, asking them to share their stories and experiences of the traineeship. Parents were recorded saying things like “I never imagined I’d see my child standing behind the counter at a bank”. They showed the video to 100 of the executives at the bank and hosted a panel session featuring three diverse workers: a disabled employee, a mother returning to work, and one of the Indigenous trainees.
A number of the executives were in tears watching the video. At the end of that session, the Indigenous trainee on the panel had four senior managers lined up to offer him a job.
One of the senior leaders told Krautil: “I just never imagined that a sixteen year old boy from Moree would have the same career aspirations as my sixteen year old boy.”
“Some people can’t see potential for that person in a leadership role because they’ve never seen it before,” says Krautil.
“I just never imagined that a sixteen year old boy from Moree would have the same career aspirations as my sixteen year old boy.”
“This self-fulfilling prophecy stuff is really powerful,” says Krautil. “The best example I can think of is the Blue Eye, Brown Eye experiment.”
She is referring to the famous (and controversial) experiment conducted on school children in the 1960s by teacher and activist Jane Elliott. Following Martin Luther King’s assassination, Elliot divided her class of all white third graders into two groups: those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes.
She told the students with brown eyes that they were faster, smarter and better than those with blue eyes. The purpose of this experiment was to teach the children about the power of discrimination.
What happened next surprised many people. The blue-eyed students started forgetting skills they’d learnt just days before and performed poorly on tests. Some of the brown-eyed students – who were previously quiet and shy – started to make their presence known in the classroom, and most of them started to pick on the students with blue eyes.
“We’re hardwired to see difference before we see similarity,” says Krautil.
To prevent its effects, the first step is to identify which employees are likely to fall victim to the Golem Effect. Krautil says it’s “any employee that doesn’t fit the mould” and Visedo says those in repetitive, process-oriented roles are also at risk.
“Another environment where this might occur is if an organisation has a culture of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – then the expectation is that nothing needs to change,” Visedo says.
To remove any potential defensiveness from leaders who are told they’re doing it wrong, Krautil suggests asking them a simple question: “what kind of workplace culture do you want to create?”
“Everyone wants fairness. Everyone wants inclusion. In my view, you have to start from that appreciative space rather than telling people what they’re not allowed to do. Some leaders haven’t been equipped to manage diverse teams. Some leaders aren’t able to identify where they might be undermining people’s contributions.”
Visedo adds: “There’s a balancing act in setting realistic expectations. When we’re thinking about performance outcomes for employees, it’s important there’s an element of stretch and they’re not just built on what the organisation needs but also structured around the employee’s capability level.”
Krautil says we’re at a critical point in time, we need to act and intervene when employees are being pushed to the sidelines, or never taken from the bench in the first place.
“We know how to do this now. There’s no excuse to not be skilling our leaders to do this.”
Want to avoid underutilising talent in your workplace? AHRI’s ‘Building and Developing Talent’ course can equip you with the skills to make the most of your team.