Monday, May 7, 2012

Random Thoughts on the Power of Expectation

I’ve been reflecting on the power of expectations that we have of others, and of ourselves.  Expectations can be high, low, or unimportant.  They can be genuine or false.  They can be quite intentional or come from somewhere below our cognitive consciousness. 
When I was a boy, the worst punishment was to hear my dad say, “I am disappointed.  I expected better of you.”  Expectations have real power. 
The speaker last week at our local YWCA annual fund raising luncheon was Barbara Bell, a retired Navy captain who was among the women who broke new ground proving themselves at the Academy, in flight school, as a test pilot, taking command.  She and others accomplished it in the face of high expectations for low performance from male colleagues who grudgingly accommodated the entrance and rise of women in their formerly exclusive domain.  
It’s long been known that when teachers and supervisors express genuine expectation for high performance from students and workers, they get a great deal more of it than do teachers and supervisors who do not.
It is equally true that supervisors who expect low performance get that too, but the issue isn’t as simple as what supervisors expect out of their people.  The expectations that individuals have for their own performance, the physical and mental abilities they have to meet those expectations, and their capacity to persevere in the face of adverse expectations from others, are extraordinarily vitally important.  
Most of us are aware of supervisors who appear to express high expectations for performance while behaving in every way possible to anticipate low performance.  Insincerity is their hallmark.  That they are common is the reason why the pointy haired boss in Dilbert is so easily recognized as someone we all know. 
But even authentic high expectations from teachers and supervisors must be met with a certain trusting openness from subordinates.  It is not possible to force another to live up to their potential.  The best any of us can do is create conditions under which they are most likely to succeed if they want to succeed, if they are able to succeed, and if they are willing to put in the work needed to succeed.
On the other hand, it is possible to force another to live down to low expectations.  Creating and maintaining the conditions for failure are easy to manage.  Only the truly exceptional can escape that trap.  Some in supervisory positions appear to get a perverse satisfaction out of creating and maintaining just those conditions in order to discover the few who can escape and then claim victory for having developed a winner.  It’s a brutal, inhumane sport governed by those who could not themselves compete. 
Almost as bad, it seems to me, are those in supervisory positions who don’t care at all.  The “whatever” style of teaching and management suck the life out of the learning or work environment, leaving everyone to just drift on whatever current is flowing at the moment.
Does our Christian faith have anything to do with any of this?  I think it does if we are about life in abundance in the face of scarcity, reconciliation in the face of enmity, and resurrection in the face of crucifixion.  Christians, individually and collectively, as the body of Christ, are under obligation to do what they can to create and maintain conditions under which all of that is possible for every person.  I think, however, that we are too easily tempted to take the “whatever” approach as if our faith, and what happens in the workaday world, have little to do with each other. 

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