My wife and I had a parent-teacher meeting with my oldest son’s math teacher this week, and I had my eyes opened. When we arrived for our appointment, our son came with us to get some assignments that he had to make up. The teacher was upset with him for making her pull out assignments he should have turned in on time in the first place, and I’m okay with that. He needs to learn to be accountable.
However, the way that she talked to him revealed to us as parents that she thinks very little of our son. For the three or four minutes it took her to get the papers he needed, she scolded him about causing her extra work and pointed out how much of her time he was wasting. Asking him about one of the assignments, she said, “Did you lose that one already?”
The question implies that she sees him as the kind of person who loses things. The tone of voice was disdain (in our opinion), and we were taken a bit off guard. Both of us (mom and dad) thought to ourselves at that moment, “If she will talk to him like that while we are sitting here, how does she talk to him when we are not around?:”
We began to see why our son was struggling so much with this class. He is doing well in his other six classes, but he’s brought home terrible progress reports in Math. Each night he has Math homework, he agonizes over it for up to two hours in just this one subject. He doesn’t get the concepts. He’s not sure of himself. He worries over his teacher’s expectations. When we encourage him to ask her for help and resources, he procrastinates or makes excuses.
Now I know why. I firmly believe that people live up to or down to our expectations of them. It’s an observable phenomenon called the “Pygmalion Effect” (more on that in another post), and it’s been documented in the classroom and in other environments. We communicate our opinion of the people around us through sometimes very subtle signals in our body language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, amount and type of feedback, time we spend with them and a variety of other factors.
And through these subtle signals, the people can tell what we think of them. Sometimes they understand it on a conscious level, and sometimes it’s at a subconscious level, but they get it. And while a few will have the gumption to prove us wrong if we have a low opinion, most will not. The typical response is that these people will fit into the mold we create for them. If we have a high opinion, they will prove us prophets; and if we have a low opinion, they will prove us prophets again. It’s called a self-fulfilling prophesy.
We get what we expect, because we create the conditions that lead the other person to act in ways that match our expectations. And even more sinister and distorting, we practice a thing called “Selective Perception,” in which only the information that agrees with our expectations is allowed into our minds. If a person for whom we hold a low opinion does something phenomenally well, we discount it and make up excuses for why it couldn’t possibly have been them who really did it.
Anyone in a leadership position has a responsibility to give everyone under his or her authority a fair shake. That means that the leader has to create a positive environment where people can do their best. It’s extremely hard not to tip your hand when you have a low opinion of someone, so I don’t recommend that approach. Instead of trying to act like you have a high opinion of them, get one. Stop focusing on their faults, and start looking for their strengths. Everyone has them. God doesn’t create garbage. Look hard to find what you can appreciate and admire about the person, and you will find that your positive expectations will increase.