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Opinion | The puzzle of great expectations

Additional pressure and performance anxiety often arise from high expectations


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Daniel Kish is a handsome 53-year-old adventurer who lost his eyesight to cancer as a toddler. Daniel even rides a bike. He does this using a technique called echolocation. Much like bats, he clicks his tongue to understand his geospatial position. From the way those clicks bounce off objects around him, Daniel gets a sonic representation of surrounding objects. He has trained himself to see despite being blind.

Daniel believes that most blind people who don’t have other disabilities could do things like ride bikes. It isn’t clicking or underdeveloped echolocation techniques but society’s low expectations that come in the way. Thankfully, Daniel’s mother chose a different approach.

Paulette Kish let him rise, fall, learn and try again. She expected him to overcome odds and rise to his potential. It worked. From 5th grade, Daniel walked to school every day, crossed major streets and made his breakfast.

The powerful influence of one person’s expectations on another’s behaviour has long been recognized by physicians, behavioural scientists and teachers. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s paper Academic Tenacity explained how a teacher’s expectations can raise or lower student IQ, mother’s expectations can affect the drinking behaviour of her middle schooler, and military trainers’ expectations can make a cadet faster or slower. At work, your manager’s expectations can influence both you and your team’s performance. We behave differently with people we expect less from. The signs are subtle but observable. We tend to adopt a different tone, avoid eye contact and stand further away.

The empirical evidence about expectations seems counter-intuitive. On Network Capital, I conducted a survey asking millennials if they thought high expectations translated to better performance; 70% disagreed. Many of our community members said high expectations put additional pressure and caused performance anxiety.

To put things in perspective, let us refer to 1950’s research (republished in 2003) by University of Michigan’s John W. Atkinson. He demonstrated that the relationship of motivation to succeed and expectancy varies in the form of a bell-shaped curve. The degree of motivation and effort rises until the success probability is 50%, then begins to fall even though the expectancy of success continues to increase. Simply setting impossible goals and expecting more can backfire. That is why it is important to progressively calibrate both expectation and effort.

Effective managers and coaches tend to create high performance expectations that their team members consistently fulfill. How do they do that? Academic J. Sterling Livingston believes that the difference lies in their confidence to develop talent. What comes as a surprise is that high expectations of such managers are based primarily on what they think about themselves. What managers believe about themselves impacts what they believe about their subordinates, what they expect of them, and how they treat them.

Closer home, a friend and fellow Network Capital community member has a precarious eye condition. Gaurav has progressively been losing vision and can barely see. Recently Network Capital’s community manager requested him to conduct a live masterclass on stoicism. Strong preparation coupled with her high expectations propelled Gaurav to deliver one of the most viewed masterclasses on our community.

Expectations have the power to transform potential into performance. That’s why next time you feel like giving up on someone, think harder.

Millennial Matters is a column that recalibrates the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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