Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Power of Expectations, Part 1

Dale Murphy was stunned by the professional baseball contract he was offered. “I don't deserve this. I didn't play that well last year.”

“True, but I expect you to earn it this year.”

He did.

Of course Murphy was an unusual professional athlete, few would express objections to a big contract. However the team owner, Ted Turner, knew something about the man and how to get the best from people. While I don't agree with much of Turner's belief system, we can learn from how he encouraged his players. He understood the power of expectations in motivating people. His expectations, clearly communicated, motivated Murphy to try harder and improve his game.

That baseball contract illustrates how powerful expectations can be in our lives. Most people tend to live up to, or down to, what is expected of them (provided of course that those expectations are realistic). There are exceptions of course, but they are exceptions. Most people act pretty much as they are expected to act. A child who is told that he is dumb will seldom excel in school while a child told that he can do well usually will do well. If you think you can or think you can't, you are probably right.

Another example illustrates this.

My daughter was throwing a hissy fit. The math problem just seemed beyond her, unfair, impossible. Her teacher hated the whole class. Her middle school was terrible. Finally, after much fussing and fuming, she started to concentrate on the problem. It took a while but she solved it. Next day she presented the correct answer to the teacher and in return got a shock. She had misunderstood. The teacher intended that problem only as an example of what could be solved if the students continued to learn. There was never any intention that the students actually solve it. That teacher inadvertently placed high expectations on my daughter – and she lived up to those expectations.

Whether managing a company, parenting children, teaching students, or running our own lives, good expectations make a big difference in how effective we are. I won't claim that expectations are magic, they must be combined with other management or teaching skills. Had my daughter's teacher not bothered to actually teach some math she would never have solved the problem, regardless of how high her expectations were. However in combination with other important items, high expectations can almost appear to be magic.

One case of this near magic is what happens in top-performing schools, especially those serving disadvantaged students. As Thomas Sowell describes in the Chapter 5 of his book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, there are inner city schools that do a wonderful job of educating their students. Those schools have different approaches but all have two things in common: discipline and an expectation that students will study and learn. They accept no excuses. Single parent home? Father unknown or in jail? The gang wants to recruit you? So what? You're in school to learn, now lets get on with it. Putting those expectations on students can make a remarkable difference in their lives.

Meanwhile, many “educators” do just the opposite with the expectations they impose on their students. They tell students that they must be fed before they can learn so they emphasize tax-funded breakfast and lunch more than they emphasize learning math and science. They implicitly tell students that they cannot learn because they are poor – and it is no surprise that those students fail to learn. Apparently someone forgot to tell that to the likes of George Washington Carver and Abraham Lincoln.

The same problem affects many of the poor in this country. They have been told, either explicitly or by implication, that they cannot improve themselves on their own. Community organizers seldom organize people to clean up their own neighborhoods or to improve their education. Instead they organize those people to demand more tax-funded welfare. That sends the toxic message that they must depend on others to improve their lives. If the people have the expectation that they cannot help themselves, they will not work toward that end. Such misled people will remain disadvantaged, regardless of how much others give them.

We must work to give students, employees, and indeed all citizens the correct expectations. That will make a huge difference in the country and in our individual lives. Of course we have to do that correctly, providing challenging but achievable expectations. Next time I plan to address how to do that.

A personal note: I'm afraid I'll have to reduce the number of blogs I write in order to free up time for other things. Starting next week I will probably only write two a week, most likely posting them on Tuesdays and Fridays.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.

1 comment:

Bobkatt said...

Oh man. Now rationing has hit the blogs. What's next?