Read this if you want your staff or students to perform better

Business Coaching, Education, human rights, leadership, motivation, racism, staff wellbeing, team building

If your staff or students aren’t performing well, is it down to you?

It has long been accepted wisdom that people perform better or worse in work and life in proportion to their self-belief. Henry Ford is reported to have said, ‘Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.’ There is much truth in this: our mindset determines our outcomes to a significant degree. However, this is only part of the picture… and a part that fits nicely with our individualistic culture that holds each person individually responsible for their outcomes. It doesn’t take appropriate account of the impact of those around us on our outcomes. Nor of our responsibility as leaders or teachers for those around us.

Could it be that your staff or your students actually perform better or worse depending on the extent to which YOU believe in THEM?

This is fascinating: in 1963 a psychologist called Bob Rosenthal at Harvard experimented with his students using two groups of rats. He put the rats in two cages, one labelled ‘trained and intelligent rats’ the other labelled ‘dull and dim-witted rats’. Later in the day he told his students to put the rats in a maze and time how long it took each to get out. He didn’t tell them that, in fact, the two groups of rats were no different and randomly selected. Here’s what happened:

The rats the students believed were brighter performed twice as well! It was almost like magic.

How come?

What Rosenthal discovered is that the students unconsciously handled the ‘bright’ rats – of whom they had higher expectations – more warmly and gently. This in turn enhanced the rats’ performance! In other words, the rats became brighter when expected to!

Could the same be true for people?

Rosenthal was keen to check this out… in a school in San Francisco he literally tossed a coin to decide which students would be placed in which category and then told the teachers that one group were ‘high potentials’ and the others weren’t. They did not tell the students this. This is what happened:

“Teachers gave the ‘smart’ pupils more attention, more encouragement and more praise, thus changing how the students saw themselves, too. The effect was clearest amongst the youngest kids, whose IQ scores increased by an average of twenty-seven points in a single year.”[i]

Fifty years on this research has been confirmed countless times in the army, in universities, in courtrooms, in families, in nursing homes and within organisations.

How is it that we have not applied this truth in our schools and workplaces? The fact is, the way we each treat people affects their performance. And often we treat people a certain way due to unconscious bias and prejudices based upon preconceived ideas and arbitrary socially constructed divisions like gender, class, race, ability etc.

If I can enable others to perform better by believing in them then the converse is also true. This has been harder to test for ethical reasons but an infamous experiment that has become known as ‘The Monster Study’ demonstrated the point startlingly. In 1939 twenty orphans were split into two random groups. One group were told they were good articulate speakers, the other group that they were destined to become stutterers. The outcome… multiple individuals in the latter group developed lifelong speech impediments!

We should, of course, be horrified at such an experiment. However I would argue that we should be more horrified that in actual fact this is an everyday occurrence in our society, workplaces and schools. Some people are told they are ‘low ability’ and categorised as such overtly in our schools. Some people are told they will ‘never amount to much’. Some people are treated with suspicion because of the colour of their skin. Some are treated as ‘weak’ because of their gender or inferior because of their class. And every day these divisions and biases exacerbate those divisions and stunt, hinder and destroy the hopes and potential of countless unique and precious people.

How are you treating those in your care? Do you believe in them? If you want to get more out of your people then start with you: are you exuding positivity, belief, care and hope? Or have you unconsciously or consciously negatively categorised some of those you lead? You will reap the consequences either way.

[i] R Bregman, Humankind, London: Bloomsbury Press, 2020: p257-260

<a href=’’>Business photo created by yanalya –</a>

Post a comment