Managing Employees

The Trick to Creating Superstar Employees? Think of Them as Superstar Employees.

Research shows that your attitude towards your employees may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Trick to Creating Superstar Employees? Think of Them as Superstar Employees.
Image credit: Viktor Koen
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the January 2018 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

In 1963, a pair of researchers named Robert Rosenthal and Kermit Fode assigned a dozen psychology students an experiment: Train rats to solve their way out of a maze. Rosenthal and Fode told half the students that they would be training “maze bright” rats, selectively bred for their exceptional maze-running prowess, and the other half that they had on their hands “maze dull” ones, bred for the opposite trait. Five days in, the “maze bright” rats could complete their task twice as fast as the competing group, which is what you might expect when you pit uber-rats against dimwits. 

Related: 8 Mindsets That Will Set You on the Path to Success

But here’s the thing: All the rats in the study were, in truth, pretty much the same.

What happened in Rosenthal and Fode’s experiment demonstrates a principle of social psychology that has been confirmed by thousands of studies since: that an experimenter’s bias can unconsciously influence the performance of their subjects through what are known as “expectancy effects.” Here, the students’ beliefs about their rats dictated how they behaved with them, driving the ones they saw as extra-capable toward success and unconsciously guaranteeing that the ones they expected to be inferior would fail.

Research into expectancy effects over the past several decades has shown that the principle holds true outside laboratory settings, too, and has broad implications for how managers can improve -- or damage -- the performance of their employees, simply through the power of their own beliefs. In short, what you think about the people you manage may become a self-­fulfilling prophecy. 

“Expectancy effects happen every time you have a power imbalance,” says Allan Filipowicz, clinical professor of management and organizations at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. “If you play it right, you get better performance, and if you play it wrong, you get worse performance.” In his classes at Cornell, Filipowicz teaches executives about how positive expectancy effects -- also called the Pygmalion effect, after the mythological sculptor whose love for his creation brought it to life -- can be huge drivers of how well their workforce performs. 

To understand how the effect works, let’s imagine an employee named Elizabeth. First off, it’s important to know that how well Elizabeth does her job depends on how much confidence she has in her own abilities. Studies have shown that Elizabeth’s belief in her own effectiveness can improve her performance by as much as 30 percent. If she believes she has what it takes to succeed, she’ll work longer and harder, despite setbacks. If she lacks confidence, she’ll see each setback as the result of her own inadequacy. And Elizabeth’s confidence -- or the lack of it -- is influenced by the powerful people around her. “If your boss is making signs that he or she doesn’t believe in you, that changes your sense of your ability,” explains Filipowicz. 

Take Elizabeth’s boss. He holds certain beliefs about her potential, based perhaps on past performance, her body language or appearance or what he’s heard about her from others (think about the “maze bright” rats). These cues and others, Filipowicz says, will prompt him to interpret her behaviors positively or negatively. Say the boss sees Elizabeth taking a coffee break. If he thinks she’s a superstar, he sees someone taking a breather before another round of blistering productivity. If he believes her to be an underperformer, he sees someone sitting around drinking coffee when she should be working. Either way, his bias has been reinforced. 

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Now the boss will begin engaging in behavior that only continues to fulfill his beliefs about Elizabeth. If Elizabeth is seen as a lackluster employee, she may be micromanaged, which is likely to make her defensive and secretive, which will cause her boss to micromanage further, effectively crushing her confidence. If she is seen as a top performer, she might be allowed to work more independently, which will bring about more successes, which in turn will lead to her being given more opportunities to succeed. Thus, the cycle continues indefinitely, pushing top employees further up the ladder and devalued ones further down it.

These scenarios play out every day in organizations around the world, and they have big consequences in terms of how companies manage and recruit talent -- especially when it comes to building culturally diverse workforces, given that beliefs about potential have been shown to be often biased based on race and gender. (One experiment out of Princeton University in the 1970s, for instance, demonstrated that white job interviewers treated black applicants with less warmth, a greater number of speech errors -- misspeaking, slips of the tongue -- and shorter amounts of interview time. That caused the applicants to perform less well than equally qualified white applicants, effectively guaranteeing that the black applicants would appear inferior.) 

If getting more out of your interview candidates and employees is as simple as treating everyone like a potential star, it seems like a cheap and easy win for any business. But despite rock-solid data on the subject, the phenomenon has proven stubbornly difficult to manipulate. The issue, Filipowicz says, is that most executives go about it wrong. Simply telling an employee that you think she has high potential won’t do the trick if your unconscious behavior toward her still suggests otherwise. “People misunderstand how difficult it is to change beliefs,” he says. In other words, wishing won’t make it so.

So how can you manipulate this effect as a manager? In his classrooms at Cornell, Filipowicz coaches executives on a workaround: consciously changing the behavioral cues that communicate beliefs about potential to subordinates. In the Princeton study, researchers looked at a series of behaviors that varied based on job interviewers’ biases about the applicants: eye contact, interpersonal distance, shoulder orientation, “forward lean” -- how much they angled their bodies toward the candidate -- as well as their speech error rate and the length of the interview. All these behaviors signal to a conversational partner that you believe in them.

Filipowicz says there are countless others, too. How much time do you give a subordinate to start talking? How many questions do you ask? Is there richness and depth to the way you discuss material with them? There’s one behavior he notices in particular: Executives tend to glance down at their smartphones earlier when talking to an employee deemed to have low potential, signaling a lack of interest in the conversation. Any of these behaviors can be manipulated to convey a higher estimation of the person you’re talking to.

Related: 7 Mindsets That Guarantee Enduring Success

To get a sense of your own particular behavioral tells, Filipowicz recommends video­taping a few exchanges with various colleagues -- it’s easy to do on a smartphone -- and reviewing the footage to see how your physical and verbal cues differ between those interactions. Then choose a couple of actions -- perhaps how much eye contact you make, or how much time you give the other person to speak -- and practice modeling them in all your interactions. The adjustments might sound trivial, but Filipowicz has found that they have a surprising impact. In the end, he says, it doesn’t take much to get even “maze dull” rats up to speed.

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