Enhancing performance with high expectations

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By Goke Ilesanmi

performanceEconomic performance is the basic function and contribution of any business enterprise, and the major purpose of its establishment. To achieve economic performance and results, a lot of (hard) work is required, and the work has to be thought through and done with direction, method and purpose. Peter Drucker, a renowned business management consultant says to make any business effective, the executive can start with a model of the “ideal business” that would produce maximum results from available markets and knowledge; maximise opportunities by focusing the available resources on the most attractive possibilities; and maximise resources so that those opportunities are found that endow the available high-quality resources with the greatest possible impact.


High expectations

To be able to achieve great corporate results, it is a truism that those in management positions have the onerous task of setting their priorities right as well as setting high expectations. It should be noted that what you expect is what you get. In other words, high expectations lead to high performance, while low expectations lead to low performance. In spite of this principle, leaders and managers find it so difficult to apply this fundamental principle in the business world today. Probably their (in)action is due to ignorance.


Self-fulfilling prophecy triangle

When executives see themselves as solely responsible for the overall success of their organisations, subordinates can hardly be blamed for acting according to predictions. In the words of Paul Thornton, a consultant, assistant professor of business administration and author of “The Triangles of Management and Leadership”, “My math teacher set high standards and was very demanding. My English teacher was the opposite. He expected very little from his students. For the most part, student performance matched teacher expectations. The self-fulfilling prophecy maintains that ‘what you expect is what you get’. High expectations lead to high performance; low expectations lead to low performance.”



Research has shown that the three parts of the self-fulfilling prophecy triangle include assumptions; manager/leader expectations and behaviour; and employee reactions. At this analytical juncture, let us have a look at these three parts.



As regards assumptions, Douglas McGregor, a social psychologist, proposes Theory X and Y in his masterpiece “The Human Side of Enterprise”. Theory Z was developed by William Ouchi in his book “Theory Z: How American Management Can Meet the Japanese Challenge”. Each theory starts with a set of assumptions about people. Theory X assumes the average worker dislikes work and attempts to avoid it; prefers to be directed; avoids responsibility; and wants security above all else. Theory Y assumes the average worker finds work fulfilling and enjoyable; is self directed to meet objectives if he/she is committed to them; seeks and accepts responsibility; and wants to learn, grow and develop. Theory Z assumes the average worker is loyal; can be trusted; is able to handle freedom in doing his/her job; and is interested in teamwork.


Expectations and behaviour of managers

As regards expectations and behaviour of managers, research has confirmed that the assumptions managers make about their employees influence what they expect and how they treat them. According to Thornton, “For example, if I assume people are lazy, irresponsible and unmotivated, I will assign tasks on a piece-meal basis and micromanage. In addition, I will frequently criticise their work and tell people they are lazy and irresponsible.”

On the other hand, if you assume people are smart, motivated, responsible, and eager to learn, you will provide challenging assignments, freedom to do their jobs, and frequent coaching. Also, you will periodically praise their accomplishments and affirm your belief in their talents and abilities.


Reactions of employees

As far as reactions of employees are concerned, research shows that employees tend to respond positively to a manager’s high expectations and confidence in their abilities. If you expect people to be “winners” and treat them like “winners,” very soon they start to act like “winners”. As people achieve assigned goals, they are given more responsibilities for growth and development. The opposite is also true. If a manager’s expectations are low, employee productivity is likely to be poor. More often than not, people do what they think they are expected to do.


Academic environment

Dr. Glenn Latham, former professor at Utah State University, was recognised as an expert in the behavioural sciences, particularly in family and school settings. He did some interesting research on how teachers’ behaviour influences student behaviour. In some classrooms, he found students were hardworking, cheerful and well mannered; in others students were lazy, sullen and poor-mannered. On the reason for the difference, Latham submits thus, “There are many contributing factors, but I believe the major one may be the ratio of positive to negative interactions between the teacher and student. The higher ‘P/N Ratio’ the better the atmosphere in the classroom, the better students behave, and the more they learn.”



In some classrooms, the average P/N ratio was one to four. In other words, teachers typically interacted with students in negative ways four times as often as they interacted in positive ways. Latham taught many teachers how to be more positive with students. Increasing the “P/N Ratio” to say 10/1 had a marked effect on the emotional tone of the classroom and the students had increased academic success. In this case teachers were coached to change their behaviour which resulted in better student performance.

Personal level

Even at the personal level, the principle of high expectations leading to high performance also applies. According to Norman Vincent Peale, author of “The Positive Way to Change Your Life”, there is a tendency in human beings to ultimately become precisely like that which they imagine or image or expect themselves to be. 

 Peale says the concept of imaging is a form of mental activity that consists of vividly picturing in your conscious mind, a desired goal or objective, and holding that image until it sinks into your unconscious mind, where it releases great, untapped energies. So powerful is the imaging effect on thought, expectation and performance that a long-held visualisation of an objective or goal can become practically effective.



The images other people hold of you do impinge on your life. But the images that affect us most strongly are the self-images that we develop as we move through the years. If you firmly image or believe that you are a person destined for success, success is what you ultimately will have.

 If somebody is convinced or expects that he or she will fail, failure will stalk him or her no matter where he or she goes. If a person thinks or expects scarcity, it will befall him or her. If you visualise or expect abundance flowing to you, it will surely happen this way.



Research shows that why some managers and leaders set low expectations for their people are: Theory X assumptions. That is, some managers believe most people have little ambition and motivation. Therefore they expect very little.

 Another reason is the need to be liked. That is, some managers and leaders want to be liked. They do not set demanding goals because they think people will react with anger and resentment to the person setting the goal. Fear of failure is another reason. Some managers and leaders have a fear of failure.


Another reason

Finally, heavy workload constitutes another reason why some managers and leaders set low expectations for their people. Some managers believe that people’s workloads are already heavy, and demanding more will put their employees over the edge.

On the other hand, top managers and leaders are demanding. They often set stretch goals such as improving productivity by 50 per cent or cutting cost by 40 per cent. These managers and leaders have great confidence in their people.

They believe most people possess far more ability, energy and talent than they realise. So they try as much as possible to stretch their subordinates to the limit of their natural capacity.


Parting shot

A change in one of these three variables – assumptions, what managers expect, and employee reactions will usually affect the other two variables. A change in assumptions about people produces a change in what we expect they can accomplish. Employees respond to meet their manager’s expectations. So my advice is that as a manager or corporate leader, you need to always set high expectations to improve your organisation’s performance, or if you like, productivity and profitability.

 PS: For those making inquiries about our Public Speaking, Business Presentation and Professional Writing Skills programme, please visit the website indicated on this page for details. Till we meet on Wednesday.

 GOKE ILESANMI, Managing Consultant/CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is an International Platinum Columnist, Certified Public Speaker/MC, Communication Specialist, Motivational Speaker and Career Management Coach. He is also a Book Reviewer, Biographer and Editorial Consultant.

Tel: 08055068773; 08187499425

Email: gokeiles2010@gmail.com

Website: www.gokeilesanmi.com.ng             


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