Greater Expectations

By Jonathan M. Freiman, SPHR
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Can we, as managers, affect individual performance by the expectations we hold of others? Research indicates we can, as does Hollywood. “The Raven,” a 1935 horror classic, offers a bizarre but highly entertaining example of expectations gone awry.

Bela Lugosi plays surgeon Richard Vollin, who falls in love with a patient. The patient’s father, a judge, disapproves of the relationship. As a result, Vollin becomes obsessed with revenge and devises tortures for his intended victims. But he needs a henchman.

Enter Boris Karloff as Edmund Bateman, an escaped murderer and thief who wants to reform his ways. He asks Vollin to perform plastic surgery on his face and hide his true identity. In discussing how he became a criminal, Bateman reveals that ever since he was born, people have called him ugly. “Maybe if a man looks ugly, he does ugly things,” he reasons.

The pronouncement triggers Vollin’s imagination. He concludes that if ugly people do ugly things, then there would be no limit to the acts a truly hideous-looking individual could perform. Instead of merely altering Bateman’s face, Vollin severely disfigures him in the hope that Bateman will carry out the doctor’s plan of revenge.

Those plans are undone as Bateman repents his evil ways and ultimately sacrifices himself to foil the doctor’s plan.

Experiments in Expectations

Being called ugly motivated a fictional character’s ugly acts, but do such labels shape real-world behavior? The classic Oak School experiment in 1968, conducted by scientists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, provides compelling evidence that they do. The researchers told teachers that 20 percent of 650 elementary school students were identified as having high intellectual potential from the results of standardized achievement tests. These students’ names were shared with their teachers.

At year’s end, the children were again tested, and those earlier identified as most promising showed the most growth. There was one problem: The children identified as having high intellectual potential were selected at random. The only difference between them and the rest of the students was in the teachers’ minds. Expectations, and the way those expectations manifested themselves, made the difference.

Rosenthal and Jacobson followed up the experiment, this time using laboratory rats as students and technicians as teachers. A “special breed” of rats was identified, and the technicians were asked to train all the rats to move through a maze and find food as quickly as possible. The results: Though the rats were identical in breed, the ones labeled “special” outperformed the others because of the technicians’ higher expectations. In fact, the technicians found the “special” rats to be far more personable as well.

Out of the Lab

In the workplace, high expectations must be linked to specific, achievable objectives to transform performance. I learned this as a young production supervisor at a Midwest automotive transmission facility. When I gave machine operators specific output quantities just beyond their normal output, the results were far better than when they were given no numbers or numbers that were impossible to attain. For objectives to motivate, they must present a challenge but still be achievable.

The best result links a challenging objective with high expectations. However, if the employee views the objective as impossible, even if in reality it can be achieved, the result will be poor regardless of expectations.

Create a Performance Monster

To get the best performances out of their employees, managers should raise expectations and set objectives by:

  • Repeatedly expressing to the employee confidence of a positive outcome.
  • Showing interest and support.
  • Offering help and resources.
  • Building employees’ own expectations with a series of small victories.
  • Linking clear objectives to the overall business strategy and showing employees how each objective contributes to the results.
  • Reaching mutual agreement on the objectives, and securing buy-in and commitment.
  • Making objectives difficult but attainable.

Performance management need not be a horror show. Managers should appreciate the powerful intersection of great expectations and challenging objectives. The resulting high performance will be monstrous.

Jonathan M. Freiman, SPHR, based near Philadelphia, is a 20-year HR veteran in the manufacturing and defense industries, specializing in performance management.

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