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Walmart founder, Sam Walton, believed "high expectations are the key to everything." Recently published research provides convincing support for Sam's belief. The study examined the effects of ability-based expectations on performance outcomes and confidence. An experiment was conducted in which some participants were assigned to be "coaches" and others were assigned as "players." Unbeknownst to the players, the coaches were given false information regarding the players' basketball free-throw shooting ability.

With this misinformation, the coaches allocated significantly more opportunities to players for whom the false expectation was positive (i.e., the coach was informed that these players were of high ability and to expect positive results), and fewer shots to players for whom the false expectation was negative (i.e., the coach was informed that these players were of low ability and to expect negative outcomes). In fact, there was no difference in the basketball abilities of the participants assigned to be players. In a surprising and convincing fashion, the players who were allocated more shots made a higher percentage of them, thereby confirming their coach's expectations about their shooting ability, and were also more confident in their shooting ability following the task, than players who were allocated fewer shots.

The message is clear: people not only perform at a higher level when expectations are high, but because someone believes in them, they gain confidence as well. So how can you use the power of positive and negative expectations?

Do the following:
  • Be clear about your expectations when working with others.
  • Explain why your expectations are high: "because I believe in your ability to do this."
  • Be cautious when told to expect little of someone.
  • Give people opportunities to prove themselves.
  • Set the example by making your personal performance expectations high.

Weaver, J., Filson Moses, J., & Snyder, M. (2016). Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Ability Settings. Journal Of Social Psychology, 156(2), 179-189.


Larry Hart

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