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The Power of Expectation in Leadership

In the 1960s, psychologist Robert Rosenthal and school principal Lenore Jacobson conducted an experiment at an elementary school in California. All students in grades one through six were given IQ tests. The researchers then identified the top 20 percent for each grade – those students who were to be considered the most gifted, with the greatest learning potential.

What the teachers did not know, however, is that those students in the top 20 percent were chosen at random, not by their actual scores.

And something very interesting happened. When all the students were retested eight months later, the randomly selected group scored significantly higher, with greater improvement compared to their peers.

How could that happen?

The prevailing theory is that a teacher with high expectations of a student pays closer attention when the child struggles, providing extra encouragement and help to ensure that child’s success.

And low expectations produce the opposite effect. The teacher doesn’t try as hard to motivate the student, thinking, “Well, he’s a poor student anyway. He’s hopeless.”

The takeaway here is that, as leaders, our expectation of others creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that can directly impact their performance.

For example, if we’re Gen Xers or baby boomers and expect that millennials are lazy or entitled – and we treat them that way – we’re more likely to see those younger workers fulfill our expectations by calling in sick more often or quitting altogether. And we think, “See, they just don’t have what it takes to succeed here!”

But what if we focused on the possibilities and unique advantages that millennials bring to the table? How much more willing would we be to try to understand millennials so we could maximize their potential?

That’s one of the thrusts behind “The Millennial Challenge: Attracting and Retaining Younger Workers in Utility Fleet Operations,” one of this issue’s feature articles. We demystify the generational stereotypes to help you better understand the way millennials think and to raise your expectations – and, ultimately, the performance achievements – of your younger workers.

By learning how to positively harness the power of expectation, you’ll radically transform your ability to connect with people across multiple generations and inspire them to achieve their highest potential. And isn’t that what leadership is all about?

Sean M. Lyden


Sean M. Lyden

Sean M. Lyden is the editor of Utility Fleet Professional magazine.