By CAL Entertainment Exclusive Speaker Rob Redenbach
What do you expect from the people you lead? This isn’t a rhetorical question. Really, what do you expect in relation to commitment, performance and results?
If you have a solid history of personal achievement you probably expect a lot from your team. And most likely a key reason for your progression through the ranks is the way you stood out from your peers – with an extensive knowledge of your industry or trade, for instance, or a talent for communication, or any number of distinctive qualities. Whatever your particular mix of attributes, your position as leader should be proof that you have something that the people you lead do not have. That’s important. However, it is a relatively common error for some leaders, even senior leaders, to view their status as currency that entitles them to put their own needs before the needs of their team.
Which is why I distinguish the subtle yet significant difference between expectation and entitlement. In the context of leadership, a sense of entitlement is egocentric: it focuses on the self from the perspective of the self. It reveals an attitude of ‘I deserve this, so give it to me on a silver platter and give it to me now’. Expectation, on the other hand, is something that an effective leader builds; it is the result of actions. In fact, it is the result of a number of specific factors.
In the 1960s, psychologist Robert Rosenthal of Harvard University Medical School, together with school principal Lenore Jacobson, conducted a bold study in which they told primary school teachers that, on the basis of a series of psychological and IQ tests (known collectively as the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition), some of the students in their class were ‘late bloomers’. These students, who had not shown any particular academic prowess to that point, were, they said, expected to excel in the coming year.
In fact, the names of the designated students had been selected at random. The ‘Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition’ was a sham, and there was no basis at all to its predicted claims. But the teachers did not know this and the students in turn did not know of their teachers’ expectations. The results, however, told an astonishing story. A year later when the classes were given a battery of genuine tests, the predicted ‘late bloomers’ all showed significantly improved intellectual performance. The teachers had unconsciously treated those students differently and in this short time the children had been transformed by their teachers’ positive expectations.
Rosenthal identified four factors in the process of self-fulfilling prophecies.
1) Climate. Teachers tend to create a warmer climate for students for whom they have more favourable expectations. Basically, they are just nicer to them, both in spoken and non-verbal channels. This doesn’t mean they pander to favoured students to the point where the student is not engaged or challenged, but the overall demeanour of the teacher is clearly more congenial when communicating with students who are expected to excel.
2) Input. Teachers teach more material to the students they expect more from. After all, if you think someone can’t learn, you’re unlikely to waste time and energy trying to teach them very much.
3) Response Opportunity. Students are given more opportunities to respond when the teacher expects more of them. Teachers call on them more often, and let them talk longer, and they help shape the answers the students provide, effectively guiding them towards greater clarity of understanding.
4) Feedback. It was not a particularly surprising finding that when more is expected of a student, that student is praised more and receives more positive reinforcement when they are correct. What was surprising was that those students who were expected to perform well also received more differentiated feedback – constructive criticism – when they were wrong. One of the ways you can tell if a teacher has low expectations of a student is if the teacher is willing to accept a low-quality response or can’t be bothered clarifying a weak or incomplete answer.
Effective leaders are also effective mentors and teachers, so the findings of Rosenthal are directly transferable to questions of leadership.
In chapter six of What I Didn’t Learn at Harvard I recount the leadership ethos of a client who had a 30+ year career in Special Forces, which included commanding a multinational force of 2000 operators in Afghanistan in 2011. If my client was aware of Rosenthal’s research he never mentioned it. He did, however, demonstrate an almost perfect application of Climate, Input, Response Opportunity and Feedback in his dealings with me.
When he first hired me to provide specialist training to his operatives he made it clear that his expectations were extremely high. That said, he also went out of his way to create a climate that set me up for success, providing me accommodation on base in the Officers Mess (an unusual step given that I was a civilian and a foreigner). Determined to ensure that my material dovetailed with the culture of his unit, he provided authorisation for me to take part in field and weapons training for weeks at a time. This extraordinary and fascinating experience provided input that could not have been achieved by any other means. This input in turn led to response opportunities that effectively refined the content of what I was paid to teach.
Of course, in the process of fine-tuning the content there were times when I needed to adjust what I did and how I did it. On occasion, the result gave rise to feedback that was so candid as to be on the edge of brutal, but my client was never sadistic. His feedback was delivered on the understanding that commitment, performance and results were the desired and expected product. It was never about personal entitlement for him. The fact that 20 years later I am still friends with him is as much a reflection of his practical application of Rosenthal’s four factors as it is of anything else. And I can vouch that his expectations drew my best performance, also providing me improvements in my training processes that generalised to future work with other clients.
Over the course of my travels, I have had the good fortune of interacting with and learning from a number of outstanding leaders, representing a diverse range of industries, who consciously or instinctively understood the importance of Rosenthal’s findings. Conversely, at the other end of the spectrum, I’ve encountered leaders who, to be blunt, couldn’t care less about anything except their own ego-driven needs. What separates the two extremes? I would argue that, more than anything else, it is choice.
A leader who confuses expectation with entitlement typically demonstrates their lack of interest in genuinely empowering the people around them. Effective leaders, on the other hand, are ones who choose to invest in the education and development of the people they lead. They create a climate where team members feel appreciated and respected. They build a culture where input and response opportunities (including robust feedback) combine to deliver collective expectations that are achievable – and deserved.
If you choose to invest in making Rosenthal’s four factors a part of your personal leadership style you can expect to make a lasting, positive contribution to not only the team you lead, but the profession you are a part of.