The first time I watched The Imitation Game, a movie about mathematicians trying to crack the German enigma code during World War II, I loved it. It wasn’t until the second time I saw it, however, that I really heard this quote: “Sometimes,” says protagonist Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to the female mathematician on the team, Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley),
“it is the people that no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one imagines.”
This time, Turing’s words grabbed me. Wow, I thought to myself,
that one statement sums up one of the biggest mistakes leaders make when it comes to working with people: they underestimate the innate capabilities of individuals based on outward appearances.
True People Leaders see greatness in everyone because they work under the premise that every person, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or background, has the capacity to do something extraordinary. One of my absolute favorite things about leading people is finding those “diamonds in the rough” in the workforce—individuals who do not have fancy titles and degrees, but who have a brilliance inside of them that can be uncovered with the right amount of “mining.”
You can spot diamonds in the rough through their actions and attitudes. Sometimes they are introverts who are willing to go the extra mile to get a task accomplished, or who quietly create something and surprise you with their work; sometimes they are extroverts who have been labeled troublemakers and are acting out because they are bored and need more challenges. In many cases, these diamonds are right in front of you but you can’t see their true talents because you have put them in a box that doesn’t showcase their talents.
I can’t tell you how many times a week I hear in passing conversations with friends, business leaders, or coworkers how hard it is to find good people—but I don’t think it’s true. I think good people are all around us, and we just need to uncover their greatness. Once we do, they can do things we’ve never imagined.
So how do you do this? With three simple steps:
You get what you expect—good or bad. Psychologists refer to this as the Pygmalion effect. In a Time magazine article she wrote in April 2013, Annie Murphy Paul describes this principle: “The finding, as social psychologist Robert Rosenthal puts it, is that ‘what one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.’”
Rosenthal and his coauthor, Lenore Jacobson, coined the term “Pygmalion effect” to describe the striking results of an experiment they carried out in a California school in 1965. Students took a test that was said to be able to identify “growth spurters,” or those who were poised to make strides academically. Teachers were given the names of pupils who were about to bloom intellectually—and sure enough, these students showed a significantly greater gain in performance over their classmates when tested again at the end of the year. But here’s the thing: the “spurters” were actually chosen at random. The only difference between them and their peers, Rosenthal writes, “was in the mind of the teacher.”
The workplace is no different than a classroom when it comes to expectations. As a leader, you have to expect greatness to get it.
Mine the diamond by offering individuals with promise the opportunity to show you what they’re made of. This means assigning them tasks that stretch their abilities—not setting them up for failure! You must give them the tools they need to succeed. Provide a detailed vision of what you want accomplished, the specific outcomes you want to achieve, the boundaries within which they must work, and the resources—time, money, people, or technology—they will require in order to follow through. Then give them the space to use their talents to get the job done. At this point, you shouldn’t interfere unless they ask for help.
When you give someone a project, make sure that you check in frequently and offer encouragement along the way. People need the space to grow and make mistakes, but as their leader, you need to be accessible when they need you. A few “atta boys” (or “atta girls”) for completed tasks and “I know you can do its” go a long way in keeping a person’s momentum going. Everyone needs to know they have a champion on their side, someone who believes in their abilities and who is genuinely interested in their success. And if mistakes happen, don’t chastise. Use this as a time to reevaluate and educate. Almost 100% of the time, mistakes are communication breakdowns, so get to the root of the issue and correct it.
People are often more than you think they are; you just have to give them a chance to prove it. Expect, enable, and encourage the people you lead, and great things will happen for them—and for your organization.
Reflection Question: What do you think about expecting greatness in others? Share your answers in the comments section below.
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