Your People – and You – Reflect Your Expectations

All businesses experience crises. These may be internal: for example, the loss of your star salesperson. They could also be external – an unexpected pandemic springs to mind.

The thing about a crisis is that you should not allow it to determine your fate. It’s up to you to take control. An effective leadership strategy to do this is what is known as self-fulfilling prophecy management – a great tactic to build resilience, too.

Don’t let a good crisis go to waste

Though it is commonly attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, the phrase ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ is probably better attributed to the 16th century Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote ‘Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis’. But what exactly does the phrase mean?

Though hijacked by politicians to attack incumbent administrations, there are many ways to interpret the saying. For example:

  • A doctor may consider a heart attack and subsequent six-week coma to be a crisis. However, during this period the patient is fed nutritiously and loses 90 pounds of excess weight, reducing his susceptibility to further heart attacks and serious conditions such as diabetes.

  • An investor may be hurt by a stock market collapse, but it could be the perfect opportunity to buy stocks at exceptional value for long-term financial planning.

  • A house fire that decimates a kitchen provides the opportunity to complete the remodel you have been promising yourself.

So, where does self-fulfilling prophecy management come in?

Henry Ford, the founder of the process of mass production by assembly line, knew a thing or two about leading effectively. He once said, “If you believe you can, you will. If you believe you can’t, you won’t.”

Ford’s words provide an apt description of self-fulfilling prophecy management, also known as the Pygmalion Effect. What you expect is what will be delivered – either by yourself or by others. This expectation helps to build determination and resilience, two qualities that are critical when navigating a crisis.

When a leader expects more, they provide more

Of course, expectations cannot guarantee results. However, many studies have shown that having high expectations of others alters the way that you treat them – and this helps to facilitate expected outcomes.

For example, when you believe a person to be capable of performing well in a given task, you are more likely to give them ownership of that task, provide positive feedback and meaningful guidance, and ensure that adequate resources are provided. This attitude motivates the employee and improves their own self-belief. They are more likely to work through disappointments, develop creative ideas, and work harder to achieve.

Using self-fulfilling prophecy management through a crisis

There are five steps to employ self-fulfilling prophecy management during a crisis:

  1. Form positive expectations of others 

For example, your team can increase customer engagement during a COVID lockdown.

  1. Express those opinions

For example, hold a team meeting in which you say, “I have every confidence that, with the right approach, you can increase our customer engagement during this crisis and come out the other end stronger.”

  1. Others adjust their behavior, backed by your support

Your employees take your lead and seek ways to reach out to customers. You provide written guidance on content creation and enable employees by giving access to the tools they need.

  1. Your expectations become reality

Customer engagement rises, and pre-orders start to flow, with provisional delivery dates set for expectations of the end of lockdown.

  1. Your belief is strengthened as is that of your team

It’s a win/win. Your belief in your team is strengthened, and their belief in their own ability also increases.

A warning about expectations

Before setting expectations, you must be sure that they can be met. You’ll need to understand the abilities and capabilities of your team and its individual members. Goals that you set should be realistic and attainable, with your positivity designed to motivate and encourage.

When you manage by prophecy, the results can be staggering – even in the hardest of crises. When Churchill spoke of not letting a good crisis go to waste, he spoke to the British people shortly after. 

He spoke of standing up to fascism, never giving in, and fighting the enemy on the beaches, in the fields, in the towns, and in the hills. He laid out his expectations of the British people, and they rose to the challenge.

And if the goal you wish to set is too big? Then set smaller goals, that lead to the big goal. Take a leaf out of Martin Luther King Jr’s book, when he said, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”

What expectations do you have of yourself and of others? How do you act toward a person of whom you have low expectations? How do your expectations of others affect how they work?

I look forward to your comments, and I’ll try to answer them all – either directly or in future articles.


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