There’s a powerful secret that successful organizations apply to get higher performance from their people. And it stands in contrast to the low performance generated by managers who filter their teams’ efforts, rather than acting as catalysts to drive productivity and results.
Let me tell you a personal story.
I remember the moment I led my first platoon operation outside the walls of an Army compound in South Korea. I was twenty-two and responsible for a convoy with ten armed Humvees, thirty-two people, and a handful of eighteen and nineteen year-old drivers strung-out over a half-mile behind my truck. I kept one eye behind me, and one on the road, always ready to pull in the mirror to navigate between houses on a road designed centuries earlier, and way too small for our enormous vehicles.
“Don’t screw up – and no accidents.”
The words of my larger-than-life Commander echoed in my ears. He was a big man – even measured against a Company of MP’s. He played football at a Division I University before the Army – and he was a combat veteran. Lucky for me he was also an incredible teacher and a strong leader.
I had already confronted the stress every new Second-Lieutenant experiences when they’re not with their unit during an operation. It’s impractical for a Military Police Lieutenant to spend every waking hour with his soldiers during law-enforcement operations, when each squad is assigned an eight-hour shift. How would you sleep if your employees (fresh out of high school with sixteen weeks of intensive training) strapped on a Kevlar vest, a Berretta semi-automatic pistol, a few extra magazines, and a ticket book–and dispatched a four-wheel drive vehicle, with lights and a siren, to drive around all night? It’s a maturing experience–one that left a lot of bruises and a few scars, but far more lessons I’ve put to good use every day since.
As I looked back at that line of trucks, with gunners in their turrets to man their M-249 grenade machine guns, I’d already received a few calls at 3 a.m. from my Platoon Sergeant who always started with, “Sorry to wake you, but I want you to know about…” It hit me that they had all the training and experience they needed to make a sound decision in any situation we would encounter. I realized what the secret ingredient was. Trust. Expect more, and you will receive more. Said another way, “You get what you reward.” This is moving beyond lip service to the phrase, “empower people.” You should really expect more–and tell them.
Autonomy + Expectations = Higher Performance
When you give people autonomy, and make it clear what’s expected, you’ll get high performance to match, without the overhead and friction created by micro-management. One of my favorite expressions is: “I’m not asking for perfection, but I want you to try.”
There’s a lot of research that proves what I learned during my first weeks as a troop leader in Korea. I describe it as “Engineering Human Performance” – or how to create a pre-determined outcome. How can business leaders engineer higher performance?
Easy. When you put someone in charge, they’ll step up to perform well, make sound decisions, and generally do the right thing. The military operates using the ‘situational attribution‘ theory; decision-making authority rests with the senior person present. When the boss is gone, the next person in line has the authority to make operational decisions required to complete immediate tasks. This quality causes soldiers, sailors, and airmen to view leadership as a condition of their circumstances rather than their pedigree. They are not paralyzed by the loss of a leader, because even the lowliest Army of one has someone in charge.
Rising to the Role
In most companies, when the boss is away, subordinates need to find another senior leader to sign documents, approve budgets, sign off on expense reports, and make other decisions to operate the business. This is the ‘disposition attribution‘ theory at work; businesses incorrectly assume that sound decision making is a function of the employee’s level. It’s not.
“People assume the qualities of the roles they’re assigned.”
People who wear surgical scrubs, judge’s robes, or uniforms understand this. Uniforms create a feedback loop from bystanders–even a tentative rookie will step up under scrutiny from a crowd that expects them to succeed or to perform in a predictable way. People also routinely commit the fundamental attribution error–they assign values and assume expertise where none exists. This misperception is demonstrated each time someone asks a doctor how they should invest their money–wrongly assuming that high achievement and domain knowledge in one area translates to other domains.
Catch Me If You Can
We saw countless examples of this in Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in the 2002 Steven Spielberg film, “Catch Me If You Can.” Consider how people treated Frank Abagnale Jr. when he forged checks as a nineteen-year-old pilot for Pan Am Airways. Self-confidence can overcome negative bias, since it can be difficult to identify an expert out of context–someone wearing tattered clothes who walks up and declares–“I’m a doctor” will get everyone’s attention. Think about the Holiday Inn commercials when self-confident people tackle a challenge they would otherwise be unprepared for–at the end revealing they have no qualifications except that they “stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.
The Guards and the Prisoners
In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo and other researchers at Stanford wanted to measure how role expectations could change behavior, outlook, and self-esteem. In a study about prisons sponsored by the U.S. Navy, they devised an experiment where young men were randomly selected to be guards or prisoners in a Stanford prison experiment. Twenty-four students participated in the mock prison. Guards quickly asserted control over the prisoners, and subjected them to various forms of psychological torture. Most of the prisoners accepted their treatment, but a few resisted, only to be attacked by other prisoners who helped guards keep everyone in line.
“Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.” Philip G. Zimbardo
The Blue Eyes and the Brown Eyes
When we don’t live with an open mind, our bias is predictable and easy to uncover. The day after Martin Luther King was assassinated In 1968, Jane Elliott, a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa, divided her class for an exercise about discrimination. Students were arbitrarily placed into two groups–blue eyes (superior) and brown eyes (inferior). The blue-eyed group was placed in charge, while brown-eyed students were not allowed to use the playground equipment or the drinking fountain. Students were told that blue-eyed students were naturally better at math, English, and other skills, while brown-eyed students were told they were not as good. The next day, Jane announced she had made a mistake and the roles were reversed.
Immediately, previously low-performing blue-eyed students were producing better work. They were trying harder, while high-performing brown-eyed children started to perform below their previous levels. Jane Elliott’s impact on education is significant. Her experiment in Riceville created the foundation for her work as a speaker and coach about discrimination and diversity training for corporations and colleges around the world. In 1970, her third group was filmed and a documentary was released called “Eye of the Storm.” In 1985 Frontline created a program about the experiment, based on a book by the same title, “A Class Divided” and it includes footage from the 1970 documentary. You can watch it here.
Jane tested her students regularly and found that scores went down during the time a student was part of the low expectation group, and up during their participation in a high performing group. But another effect was more surprising. After their participation in the experiment all students’ scores increased. Researchers at Stanford reviewed the results and concluded that the experiment led to a dramatic change in the students’ performance.
“The act of believing you could do better showed the kids they were able to achieve more, to perform better, and evidence presented during their time as high-performers increased their self-confidence and performance.”
Damage of Discrimination and Stereotypes
Jane Elliott demonstrated how discrimination is manufactured, and Philip Zimbardo showed us how people act out role stereotypes.
Both experiments offer important lessons for us. It’s a small leap to recognize that leaders and managers who encourage and support their teams will generate higher performance, while the reverse is true, too. People will perform to the expectations others set for them, and knowledge about their situations does not automatically reverse those effects.
Powerful, Little-Understood Leadership Lessons
My own military experience provides further evidence to support Jane Elliott’s conclusions and the Stanford researchers’ experience. Incredibly, those lessons have not yet penetrated business leadership principles in a meaningful way.
You have a chance to make a positive, lasting difference, and as you do, think about how the evidence in this article could influence leadership-rotation programs, recruiting practices, and B-scale pay plans. Trust your team, expect more, and give your people more autonomy–the results will shock you.
I’d love to hear from people who want to change the culture in their business or organization.