5 Big Moves to Raise Expectations & Performance

“High expectations are the key to everything.” – Sam Walton

Although you’ve probably heard the phrase, “you get what you expect,” have you truly integrated high- and continually bar-raising expectations into your leadership style?

Here’s why this is such a critical attribute for growth-minded leaders: Expectations of ourselves and others exert a profound impact on performance and outcomes. In other words, high (or moderate or low) performance flows from high (or moderate or low) expectations.

Consider the findings from these two studies:

  1. In the early 1960’s, University of California psychologist Robert Rosenthal demonstrated the power of expectations with a now classic experiment on how teachers’ expectations affect student achievement. At the beginning of a school year, Rosenthal selected children at random and informed their teachers that they had particularly high potential. At the end of the academic year, these “high-potential” children outperformed their peers. The only explanation for their success was that their teachers believed they were especially talented, treated them accordingly, and the students met the challenge. This phenomenon goes both ways. If the teachers had been warned that the children selected were more difficult or less skilled than others, they would have lowered their expectations, and the students, in turn, probably, and unfortunately, would have met them.
  2. Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks observed the debilitating impact of anxiety as an undergraduate student at Princeton University. She was an a cappella singer and, during an audition, she noticed that those who did well channeled their anxiety positively—into excitement rather than fear—while those who did poorly allowed stress overtake their talents. With this observation in mind, she ran a study with 113 people who were asked to sing a song using a karaoke video game and told that their singing would be scored. The participants were divided into three groups. Prior to singing, the first group was instructed to repeat aloud, “I’m so anxious.” The second was instructed to say, “I’m so excited.” The third (control) group was instructed to say nothing. The “anxious” and “excited” groups literally spoke their expectations prior to singing. Here are the results: those who said they were excited scored an average of 80 percent; those in the control group who said nothing scored 69 percent; and those who said they were anxious scored 53 percent. The participant’s expectations predicted their performance! Brooks’ findings have been replicated through multiple studies over time: those who talk about being excited immediately before an anxiety-provoking task significantly and consistently outperform others. 

In my coaching, I’ve found fear and/or low confidence at the root of why many leaders won’t or can’t meaningfully raise the expectations bar on themselves and on their teams. Here are some of the most common symptoms I’ve observed:

  • Hesitating to push hard to find the other party’s true limits while negotiating, 
  • Avoiding the delivery of candid feedback to certain employees,
  • Withdrawing from your pursuit of something (or someone) important before trying everything ethically possible to get what you want, or 
  • Neglecting to challenge top performers to learn, grow, and improve.

There are two prevailing and costly patterns behind the symptoms: (1) We give up too soon, and (2) We refuse to risk relationships and security by tolerating status-quo levels of performance. 

Ironically, we overcome fear and build confidence by doing the very things we avoid, and then—through Deliberate Practice—building even more capability over time.  Get started immediately with one or more of the following five big moves to raise expectations and improve performance this year (and every year!).

As my coaching clients will attest, I use these expectation-raising moves myself—and now you can too.

Believe You Are More

You are more than you think you are. More capable, more resilient, more flexible, more respected, more intelligent, and more and more and more!

And yet, you operate beneath your true potential. It’s been estimated that we have 20-50% more capacity than we believe. This is true for both physical and mental activities. The problem is, we get in our own way, allowing self-talk, baggage, preconceived notions, and all sorts of other junk to derail us—most times, not even realizing we are our own obstacle.

The death crawl scene from the 2006 film Facing the Giants powerfully illustrates the gap between what we think we have within us and our true capabilities.  Take five minutes to watch this riveting scene and begin believing you are more!

Then have the hard conversation you’ve been avoiding, get back to the negotiating table, or do whatever it is that you’ve convinced yourself you can’t (or shouldn’t)—but that you know you must.

If you cannot raise the bar on yourself, it will be next to impossible to expect truly great things from those around you. Start here to create a rock-solid foundation of belief in yourself before moving to the other four big moves.

Assume Positive Intent

When was the last time you thought you knew someone else’s intentions, only to discover later with the passing of time (and, often, quite a bit of drama) that you were incorrect?

Failing to assume positive intent is one of the most drama-inducing, costly human behaviors out there. Here’s why: Context overpowers content.

When we question someone’s motives (context), the content of their message is reduced to near-zero value as we focus on the newly apparent threat to our ego, project, business, livelihood, relationships, etc.  And yet, in all my years as a professional, I’ve never run into anyone who woke up in the morning and deliberately set an agenda to ruin someone else’s day. Rather, like you and me, people begin their day with generally good intentions to do and be the best they can given their circumstances, work environment, and capabilities.

“Context overpowers content.”

What would it cost you to grant the members of your team the benefit of the doubt? Not much!

This simple bar-raising expectation—that everyone has positive intentions, regardless of the outcome they’ve produced—will lead to more productive relationships, less drama, better execution, and greater accountability. It’s also quite contagious!

Believe Your People Have the Answers

This big move is the corollary to #1 on our list, Believe You Are More.  If you believe you are more capable than you feel you are at times then it stands to reason that, as a leader, you should hold the same belief about those on your team.

Are you holding expectations for them to contribute to their full potential?

For instance, if you believe they have ideas and answers to help your firm overcome obstacles and/or pursue new opportunities, it becomes easy to ask, “What do you think?” more often.  This simple question singlehandedly changes the game, communicates elevated expectations, and challenges your people to think more independently and share more of their (probably very good) ideas!

It’s crucial to ask this question before you’ve shared your own thinking to encourage others to contribute their thoughts rather than opt to agree with you. To minimize this risk, use the best practice I teach my coaching clients: the leader ALWAYS speaks last during discussions and debates.

Once you’ve mastered the use of “What do you think?” to raise the expectations bar on your team, you can deploy a slightly more sophisticated version by asking “What do you recommend?” instead. Here you’re not just eliciting their thinking, but also expecting them to do the work of synthesizing a recommended course of action. This approach raises expectations even further and challenges your team to improve their thinking and contributions to the organization. 

Look for a Little More—Everywhere

If you do the math, it’s possible for a series of small changes to yield massive performance gains for just about any organization. This is a challenge for many leaders, as our nature causes us to focus on just one or two big things that need improvement.

For example, I frequently see leaders set growth targets that are solely volume-based: let’s sell 20% more stuff and generate 20% more revenue as a result.  In a business that generated $1m in revenue last year by selling 400 units of a $2,500 item, that would be a $200k increase to total revenue of $1.2m this year. Assuming a fair (but not high-performing) net margin of 12%, this yields $144,000 net income—up $24,000 (also 20%) from the prior year.

What if, on the other hand, we looked at smaller changes to multiple metrics like volume, price, and cost of goods sold (COGS)? On the same $1m base business, a 10% increase in price to $2,750 per unit combined with a 10% increase in volume to 440 and a 3% decrease in COGS to $1455 per unit (based on prior year COGS of $1,500 per unit) would yield total revenue growth of 21% to $1.21m and total net income growth of 51% to $181,500!

There is a multiplying force at play when you change multiple metrics simultaneously that transforms relatively small changes into large aggregate results. In this example, replacing an ambitious 20% growth target with two 10% increases and one 3% decrease generated 256% more net income growth.

How can you raise the bar and set higher expectations for small improvements to multiple metrics within your operation? In addition to the parameters we covered in the example (price, volume, and COGS), you might also consider accounts receivable days outstanding, inventory turns, overhead expenses, and any number of other factors vital to the operation of your firm. 

Raise your expectations a little, everywhere, and reap big returns.

Raise the Bar on Your Highest Performers

As we emerge from the pandemic and remain in the throes of the “great resignation,” there’s a tendency among leaders to tread gently around high performers. In a misplaced effort to retain top talent, they loosen expectations and lower standards which, ironically have the exact opposite effect!

Think back to a peak moment in your life when you achieved something significant, either individually or with a team. Now think about how you felt at that time. In most instances, people report feeling challenged, exhausted, exhilarated, and proud after pushing themselves beyond their previous limits to achieve something special. They also report gratitude to at least one other person who pushed them to be their best. These feelings are virtual catnip to top performers in any domain.

When you fear the loss of a high performer, rather than relaxing your standards, have a conversation with them instead and ask them how they need and want to be challenged next! The answers might surprise you and point to real opportunities for you, for them, and for your business.

Do your best to challenge your top performers—especially those you deem “at risk” of leaving the firm. As you raise the bar, be sure to equip them with the right people, tools, budget, and other resources they need to meet the challenge. Otherwise, they’ll quickly conclude that you’ve assigned them Mission Impossible, which is a scenario in your control that usually doesn’t end well.

How can you engage, challenge, and continually raise the bar on your high performers?


“High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.”
— Charles Kettering, American Inventor

The research and the anecdotal evidence are clear: “You get what you expect.” Now so are the five big moves you can make this year to fully integrate high- and continually bar-raising expectations into your leadership style:

  • Believe You Are More
  • Assume Positive Intent
  • Believe Your People Have the Answers
  • Look for a Little More—Everywhere
  • Raise the Bar on Your Highest Performers

Pick one or two to get started, not next week, but today.

I expect that you will—further accelerating your growth and positive impact—so be sure to let me know what you learn along the way.


Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Class: January 10, 2022. Learn more and register!


Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class: January 26, 2022. Learn more and sign up!


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