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The First Truth of Leadership

In 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted his famous studies on a facet of human behavior that validated a facet of humanity that has been applied by leaders probably since the first human to stick up his hand and say, “follow me.” It’s a truth so simple that we don’t often even acknowledge it, certainly not as much as we should. Its implications present a leader with effective tools, but also creates substantial problems when ignored.

It’s simply this: People generally conform to expectations.

One implication of this truth is that, for all the investments employers make in personality tests, people are not prisoners of their inclinations. For example, many people haven’t been inclined to wear face masks because the government tells them to; however, few such people are willing to indulge their personal preference if it keeps them from getting groceries and on to their next thing. They may be muttering about the rule under their masks, but they keep the masks on and finish their business. Similarly, people may not like their job’s 3pm start time; but if it’s the best job available all things considered, they get over it and work the shift (at least until something better comes along).

It also means that people respond to goals. As numerous studies have shown, goals that are high but achievable substantially motivate people to deliver better results. Even more interesting, the drive to achieve a high goal isn’t necessarily linked to an external reward (though they can certainly help).

Those two facts alone make recognition of people’s tendency to conform to expectations very powerful; however, it has one other implication that is a double-edged sword if you’re not careful: what you as a leader expect, you tend to get.

If a leader micro-manages people according to a belief that they can’t be trusted to make the right decision, they won’t make any decisions. Such a short-sighted leader may congratulate himself for having been proven correct; however, what he may have considered a keen insight into human nature is probably really just a self-fulfilling prophecy. If instead he had set goals for people that require a level of trust, coached them as necessary, and recognized them when they perform as he requires, before long people will tend to be trustworthy. In fact, they will often become eager to continue being trustworthy because they don’t want to let the leader down.

The “virtuous cycle” is an attractive dynamic for any leader to create. However, to be effective, it has to start with the leader being clear on what he or she actually wants, and it has to be real in the day to day. The crisply worded attendance policy requiring everyone to be in at 8 sharp isn’t clarifying the real expectation if everyone strolls by it with impunity at 8:10 or so every morning. Whatever that real expectation is, it has to be reinforced in praise, coaching, reward, and other feedback.

That’s surely among the least original paragraphs you’ll read this week. But the real point is, none of it works if the leader isn’t clear on what he or she really wants. If you have haven’t taken the time to clarify what results you want, your people can’t know to give them to you. It’s that simple, and perhaps that difficult; yet the promise of clarifying what you want is also that powerful.

So what do you want?


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