Back in 1965, a Harvard psychologist named Robert Rosenthal approached a California elementary school with an offer to test a newly developed intelligence-identification tool. This incredible instrument could accurately predict which children would excel academically in the coming year. The school readily agreed, and the test was distributed to the entire student body. A few weeks later, the teachers were provided the results, with about twenty percent of students were identified as having high potential for academic success. These children, the teachers were informed, were exceptional. Interestingly, some of these students hadn’t performed that well in the past, but the test indicated that they possessed “unusual potential for intellectual growth” moving forward.
The following year, Rosenthal returned to the school to measure how the high-potential students had performed. As the test had predicted, the “high-potentials” had succeeded to a remarkable degree: their gained IQ points doubled that of their peers. These students also seemed to be excelling in other ways. They were described by their teachers as being happier and generally more curious about learning. What’s more, the teachers shared that they had enjoyed teaching that year more than any year in the past—quite a win for Rosenthal’s intelligence identification tool.
But as Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story: Rosenthal’s intelligence tool was a sham. In reality, these high-potential students had been selected at random. The actual subject of the test was not the students but rather how people’s expectations influence performance, or to put it another way, how our beliefs cause us to act in such a way that makes our expectations more likely to occur.
Rosenthal discovered that replacing one belief (these are normal kids) with a new one (these are exceptional students, destined to succeed) brought about a cascade of behaviors from those around the student that guided the student toward more successful outcomes. As Daniel Coyle writes in his book Culture Code, “it didn’t matter that the story was false, or that the children were, in fact, randomly selected.” The mere belief that a child has unique potential for intellectual growth aligned awareness, motivations, and actions within teachers and caused their behavior around these students to change. Subsequently, the students performed better.
This is the power of beliefs, and it extends well beyond elementary school students. In the Harvard Business Review classic, “Pygmalion in Management,” J. Sterling Livingston makes the case that as leaders, our beliefs and expectations about our team members can have a significant influence on their performance for better or worse. Our positive beliefs guide our behaviors to cultivate a hotbed for growth and opportunity for those we think positively about (e.g., giving them the benefit of the doubt, providing feedback, extended patience, etc.) The key is that we believe in their potential.
As leaders, we need to own the reality that our beliefs about people can either pave the way for their development or create a gauntlet of obstacles that continually undermines their potential. People’s limitations can be stretched if we change our perception of their limitations. If we expect the worst, we’ll probably get it. This week let’s commit to believing in people’s potential. It could make all the difference in your team’s performance.
Offer: The application of topics like this in context can be challenging, but we’re here to help. Reach out to us with questions. We would love to serve you in taking a people-positive approach to your team.