I found this old article I’d written and thought I would dust it off for you.
© Copyright 1987 McPhee Andrewartha
The power of expectation in management is a vastly overlooked and underutilised strategic technique. It is simple, perhaps too simple. It is often dismissed, and confused with ‘mere positive thinking’.
Used as a planned strategy, the expectant attitude can improve outcomes in the business context by up to 60%. Developing expectancy as a planned process is a practical and measurable approach which enables the manager to monitor outcomes against the input.
The creator of the expectant attitude was Milton Erickson. He wrote about its importance quite extensively and conducted experiments to prove its potency.
The expectant attitude registers itself in minimal non verbal cues, which is clearly demonstrated in one of the experiments conducted by Erickson. This exercise involved a group of twenty students who were placed into pairs in separate cubicles. Person A was told that a stranger would enter the room and hand them a twenty five cent piece. Person B was told they would be handed a dollar bill. In a separate room, the stranger was handed ten twenty five cent pieces and ten dollar bills, and was instructed to enter the cubicles and without speaking, to approach the two people and give one person a twenty five cent piece and the other person a dollar and then to leave the room. This was repeated with each of the ten pairs of students. This experiment was conducted many times over fifteen years. The results were always the same:
‘In about eighty percent of the trials, Group A members got the quarter and Group B members got the dollar.’ (Rossi and Ryan 1983, p 64).
Erickson’s statements define the crucial role of the expectant attitude in management:
‘Your expectant attitude immediately changes the atmosphere so that it is strikingly different. It places the person in a new frame of reference charged with an expectancy that he is familiar with.’ (Erickson & Rossi 1980, p 252).
‘A good manager should be utterly confident. You are going to accomplish your purpose, your goal. And I am very confident. I look confident. I act confident. I speak in a confident way.’ (Zeig 1980, p 61).
‘It is your attitude toward your employee that determines the results you achieve…All you need to do (in order to convince yourself) is to look back through your own personal history as a functioning human being…You really don’t differ from other, normal human beings. Your total experience should teach that you are not asking anything of your staff that is beyond their abilities.’ (Zeig 1985, p 212).
How to develop an expectant attitude
In my consultancy I developed the following procedure to guide managers in planning successful outcomes. The following seven steps have been effective for managers to develop an expectant attitude in themselves and their staff.
- Plan several stages to achieve your goal.
- Relate each step (or behaviour) whatever it is, to the goal.
- Define steps flexibly.
- Define time flexibly.
- Assume any doubts are due to lack of information.
- Remember you don’t really know everything about your employee’s internal models.
- Be really curious about the process.
When these steps are incorporated, managers show the expectation in their faces and whole demeanour. They know what they expect to happen is going to happen. This sets the framework for potency as a manager and is, I believe, the hallmark of a leader.
- Plan several stages to achieve your goal
The goal determined by the manager is to have the employee effectively delegate work to his subordinates, rather than try to handle it all on his own. The manager may establish the following six stages:
Stage 1 Discuss the situation with the employee.
Stage 2 Identify tasks which can/should be delegated.
Stage 3 Discuss obstacles to such delegation.
Stage 4 Agree strategies to implement delegation.
Stage 5 Review the process in two weeks.
Stage 6 Congratulate employee on effective delegation of tasks.
Even though these stages have been ‘created’ in a planning process by the manager, they assume their own reality very rapidly. As each stage occurs it becomes a bench mark which in turn confirms the process towards the expected goal.
The expectation begins to confirm itself.
- Relate each step (or behaviour) whatever it is to the goal
Expectation is in the eyes of the beholder, and one’s frown may be another person’s concentrated thought. Whatever occurs is fitted into the expectant plan and utilised. Each employee therefore builds their own steps towards the goal.
- Define steps flexibly
Staff are unique, and your step three may occur before step two in their way of thinking. That is fine. A step might be missed out altogether as the employee proceeds towards the expected goal.
Flexible steps ensure the process is self confirming.
- Define time flexibly
Allow time for expectancy to succeed. Chemical treatments take time to take affect, so do subtle management strategies. Peter Senge comments on this in his 7th law: ‘cause and effect are not closely related in time and space’ (Senge 1992, p 63).Sometimes people need time to ‘resist’ before being ready (see Senge, Law #6). The process might take four months not two, but with the expectant attitude it does occur, rather than fail.
With enough time, most doubts become very elastic.
- Assume any doubts are due to lack of information
Sometimes managers begin to doubt themselves when they don’t achieve their goals as quickly, and in the precise way, they first planned. These doubts have impact upon the expectant attitude. This technique in Step 5, lets you assume that your plan is right on target, but you are merely lacking all the information at this time. Step 5 is an effective way of softening doubts. Natural doubts are utilised to further the expectant attitude.
- Remember you don’t really know everything about your employees’ internal models
Employees may look irritable or disinterested or whatever, in connection to the planned goal. If a manager treats these reactions at face value the expectant process can easily be diminished. Step 6 allows the manager to be unsure about the real internal motivation of the employee. You can assume the process is working, despite any appearances to the contrary.
What you really do not know cannot affect the expectancy.
- Be really curious about the process
Curiosity allows the manager to become fascinated with the process, and the outcome is assumed. It is taken for granted and is therefore more certain. Curiosity automatically confirms expectation.
This movement towards expectation is more successful, the more closely the employee is matched. When the employees’ expectations of the manager are also incorporated, a recursive interaction which Maturana calls ‘structural coupling’ makes the expectant attitude even more successful. (Maturana and Varela 1980, p 75).
The single most effective technique with employees’ expectations is to raise doubts about all the other possibilities and to confirm the ‘rightness’ of the reframed goal.
Haley explains this overall process ‘as a relationship typified by…holding the special right to define the context of meaning of the interaction’. (Quoted in Lankton 1983, p 133).
When a manager defines the goals and procedures to achieve these goals, confidently expects them to be achieved, and confirms the goal has been achieved, then leadership potency naturally follows.
A most potent and elegant counselling example of this overall process comes from a 27 year paraplegic I was seeing. He was a handsome cowboy, who was injured in a fall from his horse. Twelve months later his riding days permanently behind him, he was lost and suicidal. After two sessions of careful preparation, I gave him a very simple and audacious homework assignment. I expected he would complete it for me, for he was eager to please. I’d worked with disabled people many times and therefore I expected he could complete it. It took him four weeks to do it.
I asked him to type me a letter explaining three things that were exciting about being in a wheel chair. This is what he wrote:
‘‘Well Graham, after much thought and procrastination due to the heading of this exercise, I have finally come to the conclusion that what you had requested me to write about was too difficult to comprehend. What I have done is I have changed the title from “exciting” to what I though would be more appropriate, that being “advantageous”.
‘There is unfortunately nothing exciting about being in the position of being physically disabled. Nobody is out breaking their neck to become a cripple! The only thing that might be termed exciting is that I do find living in hope of one day becoming a low level paraplegic quite interesting. I would like that.
‘Firstly, the advantages are…you are given priority at most locations where the public have access to. I particularly enjoy going shopping in large shopping centres. In fact I look forward to the weekly or twice weekly shopping trip. I enjoy having a nice car park right outside the entrance. Once inside the store, the surface is easy to push on and I like to get looks from people when they see me in a chair that doesn’t resemble that clinical, hospital type made from chromed steel and antiquated design. Also good is the assistance and care shown by organiser of sporting and/or other events with regard to parking and visibility. It is usually the best seats in the house. At odd occasions, some organisers have meant well with provisions made for the disabled, but without much thought for their requirements.
‘I have been able to find out without too much effort who my true friends really are. Luckily I have many. I have been pleasantly surprised to find out how popular I am amongst most people I meet. I don’t think I would have been able to ascertain that previously. Generally, most people are quite caring and kind. Even though it is difficult to accept, it is nice to have people offering to help so that things I do are easier for me. That is a definite advantage.
‘For a person with my level of disability, driving a motor vehicle and not taking it for granted is not an advantage but a privilege. I feel proud to have the ability to do so. It is a sign of freedom. I have found new freedom to express my deep feelings and beliefs with others where prior to me accident I would have found it quite difficult to do so. It is still not easy but I find that it is not as hard to bring issues into the open. Things I would have once kept bottled up inside me.
‘Finally after some discussion with Mary, I have found that I along with a select few, have the opportunity to live two lives in one lifetime. How you may ask? I have lived part of my life as a person who is “normal”, ie walking. I have been there and done that as they all say. I do acknowledge that I had not done everything that I had intended to do as a “normal” person, but I did do what others do without thinking. I enjoyed myself. Now I have the opportunity to start all over again and do a number of things in a different way without even thinking twice about it because I am in a wheelchair. I sit here and type letters to friends with typing pegs and aids because of the absence of finger flexion but to me now, that is perfectly “normal”. I do it without thinking. It is the same with a lot of other things I do during the course of the day. Did you think about how you made your last cup of coffee? Neither did I. I used to make it like you in my first life, but now I make it differently without thinking about it. To me, it is the “normal” way now.
‘Graham, in closing I hope that even though I deviated from what you set out for me to do, it is acceptable and satisfactory to your requirements. Having read this letter through I cannot find any exciting things listed clearly, however I may have touched on matters exciting without realising it. (Emphasis mine). I look forward to hearing from you soon and maybe an assessment of what has been written. Thank you.’
The expectant approach is a subtle, but very rich strategy for effective management.
Used in a structured way the expectant attitude is the first step in reframing.
- Lankton, SR & CH 1983. The Answer Within. New York, Brunner/Mazel.
- Maturana HR and Varela FS 1987. The Tree of Knowledge. Boston, Shambhala Publications, Inc.
- Rossi, EL (Ed) 1980. The collected papers of Milton H Erickson. (Vol 2) New York, Irvington.
- Rossi EL and O’Ryan M 1983. Life Reframing. The Seminars, Workshops and Lectures of Milton H Erickson. (Vol 2) New York, Irvington.
- Senge, P 1992. The Fifth Discipline. The art and practice of the learning organisation. NSW, Random House Australia Pty Ltd.
- Zeig, J (ed) 1980. A Teaching Seminar with Milton Erickson. New York, Brunner/Mazel.
- Zeig, J (ed) 1985. Ericksonian Approaches. (Vol 2) New York, Brunner/Mazel.