Career Development

Are you making the right assumptions about the people you work with?

Tom Moriarty says send the right verbal and non-verbal messages to drive high team performance.

By Tom Moriarty

We all make assumptions about the people we meet and people with whom we work. We form impressions of people almost immediately upon interacting with them. Sometimes we observe a behavior once early on in our relationship with a person, and we tag that person with a label that sticks for a long time. Other times we attribute a performance level to a group of people when we know that there is a range of performance levels within the group.

It is important to be aware of our assumptions about people and to understand that we form expectations from those assumptions. The expectations may or may not be constructive.

There is a powerful influence from one person’s expectations on another person’s behaviors. Behavioral scientists have documented the importance of managerial expectations for individual and team performance. It can become a problem when a leader takes the position that a person or a group of people are fixed in a low performance level. The leader’s assumptions about members of that team become a self-fulfilling prophecy: “They’ve underperformed in the past, they’ll always underperform.”

J. Sterling Livingston was a well-known Harvard professor and founder of the Sterling Institute. In a January 2003 Harvard Business Review article titled “Pygmalion in Management,” Livingston wrote: “The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them. If managers’ expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor. It is as though there were a law that caused subordinates’ performance to rise or fall to meet managers’ expectations.”

A great deal of research and studies beyond Livingston’s have concluded:

• What a manager expects of the subordinate and the way he or she treats subordinates largely determines performance and career progress.

• A unique characteristic of excellent managers is their ability to create high-performance expectations that subordinates are encouraged to fulfill.

• Less-effective managers fail to develop high expectations, and as a consequence, the productivity of their subordinates suffers.

• Subordinates more often than not appear to perform at the level at which they are expected to.

To be effective as a leader, it is necessary to understand that our attitudes toward others will influence their performance. The expectations that managers hold for the performance of others may become a factor in those individuals’ success or failure.

In addition, whether our cues are intentional or not, we regularly give away signals that can indicate our feelings about people. A manager may rarely make eye contact with people for whom he or she has little respect. A fleeting facial expression can reveal more than a leader ever intended to. The way job assignments are handed out can be a very visible indicator of our perceptions: Always giving the same person the lowest-skill jobs, for instance, sends the message, “You’re not good enough to be trusted with any other work.”

A supervisor who dismisses one of his or her teams as a perpetually poor performer is taking the easy route out of leadership. Taking the position that nothing can be done to improve the team’s performance is an excuse for the supervisor not to try to guide the team. In this case, the supervisor’s manager needs to recognize this trait and provide the supervisor with feedback and coaching.

When frequent and clear communication is lacking, people will tend toward more pessimistic interpretations. Most people want to avoid confrontation, so it is natural that people will tune in to nonverbal signals. Nonverbal indications tend to have more impact because they are perceived to be closer to the leader’s true feelings.

Everyone has a need for feedback – an acknowledgement of their existence and an understanding of how they’re performing. When you have low expectations for performance, you send corresponding messages. Whether you communicate your feelings verbally, in writing, or through body language, your message will be received.

Read Tom Moriarty's monthly column, Human Capital.