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  • Kick Ass Zombie Hunter

A Simple Way to Improve Performance

A mouse peeking up over a ledge.

What if you could improve the performance of your team members without them having to do anything.

All you need to do is check your expectations.

Our expectations of others can have a direct impact on their actual performance.

Let’s take a look at IQ tests. These tests have earned a bad reputation because slapping a “slow” or “smart” label on people can impact their behaviour and how others perceive and treat them.

Robert Rosenthal calls these expectancy effects. He is well known for his research on experimenter expectancy effects (try saying that three times fast). This is when a researcher can influence the outcome of a research investigation. One of the best examples of this effect is a study he did with Kermit L. Fode using lab rats.

They had two groups of students test how well rats could run a maze. The students were told that the rats had been specially bred to be either “maze dull” or “maze bright”. So, either good or bad at running mazes. Of course, you guessed it, all the rats were standard lab rats that had been randomly assigned one of the labels.

However, despite being no different from one another, the rats labeled “maze bright” did learn and run the mazes better than their “maze dull” counterparts.

Why? Because the students expected the rats to either perform well or not to perform well, they influenced their performance through their own actions and behaviours.

I know what you’re saying – people aren’t rats.

But the same results have been found in studies between teachers and students. When teachers were told a student had big potential and was clever, they performed in accordance with these expectations. Students they were told the opposite about, also performed accordingly.

When teachers worked with students labeled as “bright”, they spent more time with them, gave them more opportunities, were more patient with them, more forgiving of mistakes, and so on.

The same thing happens in our workplaces. As leaders, our expectations of people influence their performance. We spend more time with people we feel (or are told) are high performers, giving them more opportunities for growth and development, chances to exercise their strengths, more room to take risks and fail, and more leniency on mistakes, creating a more favourable environment for them to actually be high performers.

We often do the opposite for those we see as low performers, making it difficult for them to improve and reinforcing our initial expectations.

Take a moment to think of your own team. Have you labeled them as “maze bright”, “maze dull”, or somewhere in between? And if so, how are these expectations impacting how you lead them? What would happen if you gave your low performer the same treatment you give your high performer? You might be surprised at the results.



Fight workplace zombies in your organization and join Team Human! Gather a group of fellow workplace zombie hunters to discuss our most recent blog post. Use the questions below to kick start your conversation.

  1. Think of a time in the past when your expectations of someone may have influenced how you treated them.

  2. Think of a time in the past when someone else’s expectations of you influenced how they treated you.

  3. What can you do as a team/organization to make sure your expectations of others are to their benefit and not pulling them down?


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