Let me start this post by telling you about two experiments.
The first experiment involved rats. Scientists were given two sets of rats. One set had been “genetically modified” to increase their intelligence. The scientists were asked to test the rats to determine how much smarter the “super rats” actually were.
In the second experiment, elementary school teachers were given two lists of their students. One list had all the students that were “gifted.” The other list had the name of all the students that were just average.
In both of these experiments, the thing that was being tested was not rats nor the children, but the perception of the scientists/teachers. In both cases, the groups were the same. There were no “super rats” and there were no “gifted children.” They were all statistically the same. However, the group that had been presented as above average, tested above average–even though going into the experiment there were not differences between the two groups.
In the school experiment,the “gifted” students consistently earned better grades than the average students. Now at first glance this might not seem too odd. If a teacher believes a student is “gifted,” they may spend more time helping them or not move on until the student masters a concept. If the child hasn’t learned something, the teacher might assume that it is because they didn’t explain it right and try again.
However, in the experiment with the rats, the results are much harder to explain. Keep in mind that these were scientists–people who were trained to set up experiments to measure data. If any group of people wouldn’t have been influenced by their own expectations, it should have been the scientists.
These two experiments contain some very important lessons about experiment design and point out the importance of using double blind methods to get non-biased results, but what I wanted to point out is the power of expectations. When humans expect something, they usually find it. Sometimes we may cause what we are expecting to happen. Other times we may only notice the data that supports our expectations. You could spend a lifetime studying exactly why this occurs, but simply knowing that it happens can have a significant impact on how you approach your career.
In my early years doing consulting work, I had a project working with an established team. After about a week, I had a pretty good idea of each team-member’s strengths and weaknesses. Then someone took me aside and said, “Sue doesn’t really know what she is doing.” From that point on, I noticed every thing Sue did that seemed even slightly inept while disregarding anything that would prove otherwise. Sue was no different than before, but my perception was dramatically different and this perception had a very strong influence on how I saw everything that Sue did and even how I interacted with her. It wasn’t that I treated her badly, but her suggestions and input went through an additional level of filtering. After another week or so, I realized how drastically my perception had changed and I made a conscious effort to look for Sue’s strengths. It turned out she was a very strong member of the team, but when I was focused on noticing her shortcomings, I was blinded to her strengths.
Even though I was aware of what was happening, I doubt that I was ever able to fully offset the negative expectation. For every time I’ve noticed how my expectation was blinding me to someone’s strengths, there have probably been twenty times that I didn’t even realize what I was doing.
What people think of you really does matter. If you want to have a productive career, you need to make sure you carefully manage people’s expectations. You don’t exist in a vacuum, and how people perceive you is a very important part of what you are able to accomplish.
I don’t mean to suggest that your success is completely tied to the perception of others, but it is much more important than most people realize. In my next post, we’ll look at some ways to help manage and guide how other people perceive you.