Last weekend Left for Dead, my team where all seven improvisers are at least 50 years old, performed in the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival. Several team members had the opportunity to catch the 5:00 show featuring three musical improv groups. And they were outstanding. All of us fogies even loved the group that incorporated rap.
But seeing such excellent work worried us because we weren’t sure we were worthy of using the same stage. I, being the most paranoid on our team, even wondered how we had been accepted at all. Not only that, we were opening for the headliner act. How the heck did we get that lofty position in the line-up when the amazing sets we had just seen were scheduled into a non-prime timeslot?
My experience at the festival started me thinking about the Pygmalion effect and the many experiments where people perform according to expectations. Most of the studies focus on education—the effect a teacher’s opinion and how they convey that opinion have on a student’s success in the classroom. Several studies have looked at this dynamic in the workplace too.
This concept of self-fulfilling prophecy, as it’s also called, is controversial. The effect depends on the strength of a person’s intrinsic motivation. Highly motivated people aren’t going to waiver based on what someone thinks of them. For those who aren’t as confident or as inspired, encouraging them and showing confidence in their abilities can make a huge difference.
As a leader, you don’t have to worry about your intrinsically motivated team members. They’re your super stars or at least aspiring ones. The leverage comes from making everyone else believe they too are amazing.
Your front line people managers have the most influence on what individuals think of themselves. They affect their employees’ confidence and self-perception through feedback, performance reviews and goal setting. But you can help your management team (and the people who work for them) by creating an environment where everyone continually strives for excellence—for doing better than they’ve already done.
Step one is envisioning all that’s possible if everyone in your organization worked to best of their ability—better than they themselves believe they could do.
Step two is sharing that vision and getting everyone to see it as a real possibility. If you show the confidence in them as a team, they will begin to believe, simply because you do. But you have to be authentic. (You don’t want to be like the Pinocchio in the GEICO commercial. )
Step three is setting high standards and sticking to them. If in the past, you accepted mediocre work, stop now. If you’re inconsistent in what you find acceptable, stop now. And if you’ve let certain people get by at a sub-par level, stop now. There’s no room for mediocrity in a high performance culture.
In case you’re wondering how our show in Pittsburgh went… It was one of our best performances ever. Afterward audience members, including other improvisers, told us how much they enjoyed our set. One young woman said, “When it was your turn, we thought we would just have to be polite to the old people, but we really loved what you did.”
That night we were as triumphant as Eliza Doolittle at the ball.