To Turn Potential Into Performance, You Need to Place Confidence in Others

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CEOs and business owners often lament that “we just don’t have enough talent on our team,” or when they are hiring, “there isn’t a deep enough pool of talent to choose from.”

I couldn’t disagree more.

We don’t have a talent problem in our workforce, we have a confidence problem. There’s an abundance of employees with potential, but without confidence their potential doesn’t stand a chance of getting transformed into performance. This is why a culture of workplace coaching plays such a critical role.

Coaches see talent in us that we don’t see in ourselves. They’re in the transformation business. Great coaches tell you what you don’t want to hear and get you to do what you don’t think you can so you can become something you didn’t think you could become.

Related: To Build a Top-Performing Team, Keep Your Stars Happy and Your Bench Inspired

Whenever I see this happen, whether it’s in business or sports, I’m reminded of the fact that confidence is king. It’s the one thing that affects all things.

My most recent reminder came from an unlikely source. On Saturdays my kids and I go horseback riding. Their coach, Jen, was out of town so her teenage daughter Hannah filled in and taught my kids. My oldest daughter Meredith is an experienced rider and Hannah knows her well, having seen her compete in shows.

My younger child Julia on the other hand isn’t a known quantity to Hannah. Julia is very much a novice and unbeknownst to Hannah she hasn’t jumped or even cantered. Julia is not the most confident kid and tends to proceed with caution in everything she does.

The interesting thing about confidence is that it’s contagious. When you’re low on confidence you can borrow it from other people who possess it in abundance. Hannah is one of those people -- she’s fearless on a horse. This rubbed off on Julia in a very big way. She jumped with no fear and handled a cranky horse's attitude with confidence.

More importantly, there was a huge carryover effect. After the lesson, you could see her walk get replaced by a swagger and her tone of voice even reflected this confidence boost. Days later it has spilled over into her school work and still hasn’t worn off. She left the stables that day transformed.

We are all in this story. We all have the ability to do the same thing Hannah did with Julia with the employees, clients and customers we serve on a daily basis. That transformational hour Hannah spent with Julia was a lesson in the power of the Pygmalion Effect, which refers to the fact that people tend to perform up to the level people expect of them. It’s based on the ancient play Metamorphoses by Ovid. His character Pygmalion was a sculptor who could look at a slab of marble and see the sculpture that was inside it.

In 1968, Robert Rosenthal did a research study where elementary school students were given a disguised IQ test. Their scores were not disclosed to teachers. Teachers were told that some of their students (about 20 percent of the school chosen at random) could be expected to be high achievers that year, doing better than expected in comparison to their classmates. These high achievers names were shared with the teachers.

Related: Motivate Your Employees in 3 Steps

At the end of the study all students were given the same IQ test used at the beginning of the study. While all students showed an improvement in IQ when re-tested at the end of the study, the students labeled high achievers scored significantly higher than the others. These “high achievers” were in fact ordinary students -- the teachers were misled by Rosenthal.

Pygmalion explains why our relationships are usually self-fulfilling prophecies. When you’ve set expectations for someone, they will tend to live up to those expectations. This isn’t limited to the classroom, it’s playing out every day in boardrooms and meeting rooms as well. And on Saturday I was reminded of two of the most important factors in success.

  1. You’ve got to believe strongly in others before you can lead them.
  2. The strength of your belief in others has the ability to overcome their disbelief in themselves.

Hannah’s coaching of Julia prompted me to reflect on these questions. I hope it does the same for you.

  • What am I expecting from people who work for and with me?
  • Am I sure I’m setting the bar high enough?
  • Am I consistently serving as a confidence giver with my clients?
  • What would you attempt today if you knew you absolutely couldn’t fail?

The lesson for us as entrepreneurs is that you don’t want to be in the transaction business, you want to be in the transformation business. Your clients arrive one way and after their experience with you they leave transformed, as a better version of themselves.

Warning: The Pygmalion Effect doesn’t warrant having unrealistic expectations of your people. Hoping for a miracle is not an effective leadership strategy.

Related: 6 Things Effective Leaders Should Do to Inspire Their Teams