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Enlist the Power of Suggestion to Boost Your Startup's Performance Setting employee expectations is critical enough that it can mean the difference between success and failure.

By Peter S. Cohan Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


As a leader, you have the power to set expectations. And those expectations can alter how people behave and the results generated. The classic example is a coach's powerful pregame speech that turns a lackluster team into a winner.

But it doesn't take a gift for motivational speaking to result in a huge difference in outcomes. Consider scientific research about people with asthma: Telling people different things about the same chemical produced radically different symptoms.

As I learned from a Nov. 17 National Public Radio broadcast, People who were told an odor could harm them began to exhibit symptoms of asthma as soon as they were exposed to it, while those told that the same odor could be beneficial showed no such symptoms.

This conclusion made me feel as though the top of my head had just been blown off!

Pamela Dalton, a senior scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, designed an experiment that tested how people with asthma would react to the power of suggestion.

So she divided 17 people with chronic moderate asthma into two groups, each given a rose scent for a quarter hour. "One group was told it could help them breathe better," according to NPR. "The other was told it might cause breathing problems."

While members of the "breathe better" group said they liked the odor, those in the "might cause problems" cluster said the odor made them feel sick and caused airway inflammation that lasted 24 hours.

As Dalton told NPR, "What really surprised us was the simple instruction that the odor might be hazardous caused their airways to increase inflammation."

What does this mean for entrepreneurs? To me the implications are pretty clear, though I would like to see them tested in an experiment.

Related: The 10 Biggest Motivation Killers and How to Fix Them (Infographic)

My hypothesis is that entrepreneurs could use the power of suggestion to change the way people at their companies behave.

Imagine two startups, Company A and Company B, each with limited resources and burning through cash at a rapid clip. The CEOs at both organizations are under pressure to finish building a product, deliver it to customers and generate revenue.

Company A's CEO exits a board meeting feeling a powerful combination of fear and anger. He stomps into the conference room where the management team is assembled and yells forcefully, "You guys are not building this product fast enough and if you don't pick up the pace, the company will run out of money and we'll all be out of a job."

Related: How You Can Inspire the Best From Your Employees

Company B's CEO also leaves a board meeting feeling a powerful combination of fear and anger. He walks outside and thinks of the day his son was born, putting him in a cheerful mood. He energetically strides into a conference room where his management team is assembled.

With a big smile, he tells the managers a story that causes them to laugh and relax. Then he says, "Thanks for the brilliant work you've been doing to guide the design of the new product. In light of your magnificent track record, I have no doubt that we'll be able to push out this product for delivery to customers by the end of this month. I will be with you every step of the way."

Applying the results of Dalton's experiment here, I would guess the power of suggestion would lead Company A employees to share their CEO's fear and anger. I'd also predict that a rise in employees' blood pressure and that they would feel a strong urge to quit the company or at least start looking for a new job.

In contrast, I would expect Company B's people to feel enthusiasm about the opportunity to finish the product with a flourish. They would have a strong sense that they could work with their colleagues to identify and overcome obstacles preventing them from achieving their goal. And that feeling would motivate them to invest the extra time to ensure that they do a great job in building the product and delivering it to customers.

Given a choice of where to invest, I would bet on Company B because its CEO knows how to harness the power of suggestion.

Related: I Suggest You Replace Your Suggestion Box With This

Peter S. Cohan

President of Peter S. Cohan & Associates

Peter Cohan is president of Peter S. Cohan & Associates, a management consulting and venture capital firm. He is the author of Hungry Start-up Strategy (Berrett-Koehler, 2012) and a full-time visiting lecturer in strategy at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.

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