Coaching Head Check: Do You See Eagles or Turkeys?

Expectations in coaching leadership

A leader’s coaching skills are vital today. Millennials especially want direct feedback and supportive guidance. Leaders aspiring to build coaching skills need to do a “check up from the neck up.” Am I in a growth or fixed mindset about the people I am coaching?

Ineffective managers ask, “How am I expected to soar with the eagles when I’m surrounded by a bunch of turkeys?” Effective leaders with growth mindsets see people as they could be — eagles in training. Managers with fixed mindsets simply see them as turkeys. They’re both right. Research shows managers and leaders often get what they expect.

In his Harvard Business Review classic “Pygmalion in Management,” J. Sterling Livingston draws from the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who carved a statue of a beautiful woman that came to life. George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (which was the basis for “My Fair Lady”) used a similar theme. In the play, Eliza Doolittle explains, “The difference between a flower girl and a lady is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.” Livingston presents a number of his own studies, as well as other research, to prove that “If a manager’s expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If his expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor.”

“The Pygmalion Effect” was uncovered years ago by psychologist Robert Rosenthal at Harvard University. He told a group of students that high or low intelligence was bred into laboratory rats through genetic manipulation. One group of students were given the “bright” rats. The other group of students drew the short straw and got stuck with the “dunce” rats. When tested in their ability to navigate a maze, the bright rats dramatically outperformed the dunce rats. What the students didn’t know was that there was no difference in the rats’ intelligence levels. Both groups of rats were the same. The only variable was the expectations of the students handling the rats.

Educational research supports the theory that we get what we expect from people. In his book, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Robert Tauber, a professor of education at The Behrend College of the Pennsylvania State University at Erie, compiled over 700 doctoral dissertations and countless journal articles on stereotyping, perception of social differences, race, gender, ethnicity, body features, age, socioeconomic levels, special needs, and other personal and situational factors showing, “What we expect, all too often, is exactly what we get.”

A study by David Upton of Harvard Business School on the billions of dollars invested to increase manufacturing flexibility concluded, “Plants that managers think are flexible tend to get a lot of practice and get better at it. It’s a self-fulfilling belief. We’ve found that flexibility is determined much more by the people in the plants, their industry experience, and the practice they get, than by the use of a certain type of technology.”

It’s a vital head check for would-be coaches — behaviors reflect what he or she sees. Whether the leader thinks they can or thinks they can’t, they’re often right. They become what we expect.

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