Are You Getting What You See or Expect?

It isn’t unusual to hear organizations lamenting the challenges of dealing with workers in today’s culture. The quiet quitting so prevalent now lends some legitimacy to that frustration. Yet, as a leader, are you getting what you see and what role do your expectations play in this circumstance? What role does leadership play? How do expectations impact the employer/employee relationship? And, is it true that what you see or expect is what you get?

In 1971 (Yes, before many of you were born), a band named The Dramatics produced a song entitled, Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get.” The song is in the funk genre. While the lyrics speak about a love interest, the concept applies to many circumstances, especially regarding what employers see in employees; what you see or expect is what you get.

The Power of Expectations

The expectations I am writing about are not the job description expectations but those unspoken expectations that get telegraphed through non-verbal language. They are the expectations leaders have when they judge an employee’s potential. Those judgments are usually silent unless shared with others in the organization. They can either be positive expectations or negative ones. For instance, a leader judges a new group of employees as washouts before training starts based on what exactly?

Most people rise to the level of expectations they experience, externally and internally. Low expectations do not just harm the company, they also harm individuals who have the potential to become great. Assessing potential begins in the hiring process and continues throughout a person’s career with a company. Suppose a leader makes an early negative judgment about an employee. In that case, the employee’s performance will rise to that level, even if they never hear the conclusion about them spoken out loud.

Through what lens are you looking?

The phenomenon described above is known as the Pygmalion Effect and was a study done in the classroom in 1968. Two researchers, Rosenthal and Jacobsen, studied the impact of how a teacher viewed students on the student’s performance. What they found also applies to the workplace. When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985) This quote applies to all our human interactions.

It takes a different lens to see potential and lead with the expectancy of good performance. Humans have a negativity bias, and that bias often gets in the way of seeing potential. Leaders must work on using a lens of seeing the best in people rather than their negative expectations. If you have a traditional work ethic, it can be challenging to see a younger generation in the same light as your generation. While they may not all show up as previous generations did, discounting what they can bring to the table can cost you high potential talent.

How do leaders balance the human tendency to judge?

Check your premise– Something shared with a group when I went through a leadership program is to check our premise. A premise is an assumption or something we take for granted. Good leaders work on not making assumptions about situations or people. Be sure you are giving employees the chance to succeed by not assuming something negative about them before they have had a chance to prove themselves.

Maintain objectivity– When leaders are stressed or tired or lacking confidence, they can project all of that onto others. Take the time to zoom out to the 30K foot level and view the person again. Ask yourself if you objectively see the employee’s potential or if a pessimistic view is coloring your perspective. If you discover a negative outlook, explore how you came to that view and challenge it.

Invest in your employees- Leaders who invest in bringing out their employee’s potential tend to have more productive teams, more engaged team members, and a better performing company. Organizations now have to take more time to develop people. It is an investment in the future. It is also harder to negatively judge someone when investing in them. Give employees the chance to rise to their potential by investing in them.

Often expectations are driven by opinions that are informed by our beliefs. To get the most out of your most important asset, your people, consider exploring what you see in them. What do you believe about them based on stereotypes or how they present themselves? Remember, what you see or expect is what you get. It might make your employees develop more positive expectations of you too, and improve the employer/employee relationship. Let us know how we can support you and your team.


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