Mindset Mastery: Harnessing the Power of Expectations

Goals and expectations are part of what make a workplace successful, but those expectations must be managed appropriately.

Expectations are crucial to learning, motivation and ultimately, to levels of performance. In others words, they have a significant impact in activating intentional change. Think about it. If you expect “too little,” then that’s what you’ll achieve, perhaps at best. Like an unconfident archer satisfied to hit just any part of a target, it’s only happenstance if he makes a bullseye at all—much less regularly.

Expect “too much”—like “zero incidents forever,” “be ever aware of what’s around you” or proclaiming “Safety is always number one!”—and leaders are either doomed to be perpetually disappointed or wind-up encouraging others to hide need-to-know risks and incident reports. High expectations are fine and needed—always aim for the center of the bullseye (or towards zero unsafe acts)—but also understand that just as a gust of wind can miscarry an expert archer’s launch, stuff happens in the real world. Going to an extreme of setting overly-high objectives can have negative consequences when rigidly applied.

Let me give an example: A company that has significant daily physical and uncontrollable external risks achieved years of accident-free work without cooking any books, along with real encouragement to report all incidents. Then, a worker suffered a broken finger. The company’s CEO, an acknowledged safety champion, revealed over lunch that they were deflated by the incident. After listening, I offered an alternative view: that the one recordable incident after years of being injury-free actually affirmed their safety commitment, performance and record.

Many would see this as “the exception proves the rule,” where a perpetually zero injury rate in a high-risk industry might be suspect as hiding, suppressing or otherwise being a whitewashed record. In this case, a broken finger got the attention of the entire organization. Further, because all humans are susceptible to the lulls of complacency, this was a prime opportunity to remind all parties that stuff does happen even to the best of us, and that with risky work it’s essential to mindfully attend to and avert hazards.

These are things to consider when managing safety expectations:

A Leader’s Expectations

There’s a balance between the extremes of settling for being mediocre vs. setting your sights on improbable goals. No question, a leader’s expectations affect others. The classic Harvard Educational Studies—where a statistically average group of students whose teachers were told in advance had elite intelligence actually performed to that high level, and those whose teachers were told were “slow” underperformed—are often cited as classic proof of the power of leaders’ expectations of their students, transforming a self-fulfilling performance prophecy.

Balance Realistic with Aspirational

I’ve seen that pretty much in every case where people seem pleased or unhappy with where they are, it’s always an issue of how expectations match up with their view of their situation. In other words, people are happy if they do better than what they expected and disappointed if they do worse. Understanding this dynamic is significant for leaders. It’s one of the reasons why being an overly-cheerful communicator often backfires. Setting expectations too high crashes potential satisfaction when results don’t measure up—even when these results are really good. For example, stock pricing often fluctuates based on anticipated announcements. If a company’s shares are somehow expected to go up 30 percent and they only raise by 20 percent—that is still a great improvement! Nevertheless, that firm’s stock will still often tank.

Think of how you would respond in both of these comparative scenarios:

1. If near the beginning of a day-long seminar, I told you, “Because we’re working attentively and hard, I plan on our ending at 4:30 instead of 5:00” but then wound up dismissing the workshop at 4:40.

2. If I initially stated, “We’ll shoot for ending right on time at 5:00,” but then dismissed the seminar at 4:50.

I bet you would be looking at the time in the first scenario, disappointed and eager to leave. Whereas in the second scenario, you would likely be pleasantly surprised in the latter instance to get out of the seminar 10 minutes early. Being able to leave at 4:40 in scenario 1 was a demotivator, but leaving at 4:50 in scenario 2 was seen positively.

Motivation vs. Demotivation

 See what actually motivates vs. what merely demotivates. Perhaps that’s why, in his Two Factor Theory of Motivation to work, eminent industrial psychologist Frederick Herzberg categorized compensation as a “hygienic factor” in motivation. In other words, he saw that a higher salary didn’t positively motivate people to work more diligently. Conversely, not being paid what workers considered was enough only served as a demotivator (Example: Just as no one will be motivated to perform better because company restrooms are clean, but may be readily demotivated if they’re filthy.) In other words, when unmet expectations—whether assumed to spring from lack of fairness, not being valued highly enough, failure to make more than others who are seen as less capable or experienced, where safety resisters get away with not complying with basic procedures—quashes motivation to work harder and more effectively.

Go Beyond Positive Thinking

Yes, Henry Ford contended, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re probably right.” But positive thinking alone doesn’t create instant success, especially when it’s only founded on ethereal wishes. Simply setting the initial expectation that you’ll arrive at your destination safely isn’t enough to take the place of putting on your seatbelt, adjusting and using mirrors, allowing safe following distances, leading with visual scanning before changing lanes or turning, etc. Actual accomplishments grow out of combining incremental, ramped-up expectations with developing appropriate and tangible skills and actions.

Do you want to set your own expectations for supporting effective, quick improvements in decisions and actions and encourage others to do the same? Believe in others’ potential to improve and communicate this to them consistently. Elicit others’ help in setting organizational expectations. Frame them as a next step, not as a reach for the stratosphere. This makes buying more likely to those who tend towards skepticism. Draw out and discuss reservations about achieving expectations. Create concrete plans and timelines for leading-indicator check-ins.

Transfer those needed skillsets that support reaching expectations. Expectations are intrinsically tied to goals and objectives. But, for many, setting each of these are leadership skills that can be greatly strengthened to step up safety. Robert Pater is Managing Director of SSA/MoveSMART®.

This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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