Leaders Cause Their Direct Reports to Sink or Soar“Tell me about the people at the organization you just left,” said the senior manager who was screening candidates to fill a key leadership role. “They were uneducated and lazy,” the candidate responded. “You always had to keep an eye on them because they were constantly trying to goof off or rip off the company. They were lousy communicators, resisted change, and only cared about themselves.” “That’s too bad,” replied the senior manager, “I am sorry to say that’s the same type of people you’ll find here. This doesn’t sound like a job you would enjoy.”

Once the next candidate was seated, she was asked the same question. “Oh, they were great,” she said. “Although many of them couldn’t read and we had some trouble communicating with each other, they were very driven to succeed. Once we all got to know each other, they were constantly helping one other and working together.” “Great,” the senior manager responded, “That’s the same type of people you’ll find here.”

I first published this example in “People Live Up or Down to a Leader’s Expectations” to illustrate all the research showing what parents, teachers, or leaders see in their kids or direct reports has a remarkable impact on their behavior and performance.  “A Native American Folktale Illustrates the Power of Expectations” tells the story of an eagle’s egg hatched by a prairie chicken. Growing up with the flock the eagle believed it was a chicken and never soared to great heights — or even got off the ground. Whether a leader sees a chicken or an eagle has a huge impact on their direct report’s self-image and performance.  This has been called “The Pygmalion Effect” as shown in George Bernard Shaw’s play “My Fair Lady” (“My Fair Lady Shows the Power of Expectations“).

In their latest Harvard Business Review blog, “If Your Boss Thinks You’re Awesome, You Will Become More Awesome“, Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman report on a recent study drawn from Zenger Folkman’s large database of 360 assessments. They compared managers who rated their direct reports significantly more positive than everyone else against managers who rated their direct reports significantly lower than all the other rater groups. Digging deeper into the data they concluded …”… leaders who see the best in their people actually make them better, while those who look more critically make their subordinates worse … these biases and rankings have become self-fulfilling, influencing subordinates’ behavior to the extent that others ultimately can see it.”