We are what we think we are (Guest commentary)

Helping employees believe in themselves sets the stage for them to thrive

I am afraid of spiders. I know they are harmless little creatures, but if I see a spiderweb in my basement, I am immediately on the alert for the dangerous intruder. Because of this mild phobia, the word “spider” catches my attention whenever I see it in print. Such was the situation when, during the course of unrelated research, I learned that if we have a fear of spiders, we are more likely to notice them. This is exactly what happens in my household. I am always the one who discovers the lone spider in the basement while others are oblivious to its peaceful existence.

If we are anxious about something, we are more likely to notice what we perceive as a threat than those who are relaxed. In other words, whatever we focus on, we see. This is a powerful concept with significant implications for both our personal and professional lives. What we see is deeply influenced by what we expect. Over the years, many scholars have worked on variations of this concept, such as The Rosenthal Effect, also known as the Pygmalion Effect (a psychological finding where a leader’s high expectations of others cause high performance), and the obverse, the “set up to fail syndrome” where low expectations of others causes low performance.

While these concepts have to do with expectations we have of others, the Galatea Effect (named after the stone statue of the beautiful woman the sculptor Pygmalion brought to life) is about expectations individuals have of themselves. It is, in effect, when high self-expectations become the catalyst for greater personal achievements. When that happens, we become our own positive self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a significant factor in employee performance. A good leader who sets out to help employees to believe in themselves, in their ability to perform well, sets the stage for their possibility to succeed. The confidence that results from employees’ high personal expectations in turn spurs them to higher achievement and productivity — their performance rises to the level of their own expectations.

Perhaps the scholar who has done the most work in this area is Albert Bandura, of Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., who pioneered the concept of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is our belief in our ability to perform effectively. Bandura’s theory is that individuals who have high self-efficacy expectations — that is, who believe they can achieve what they set out to do — are healthier, more effective and generally more successful than those with low self-efficacy expectations. High self-efficacy determines many of the choices we make. The higher the self-efficacy, the more likely we are to seek new challenges and persist in the face of adversity or failure. High self-efficacy also influences the effort we put into achievements. One might say that we are what we think we are.

This old adage is now scientifically proven. From the extensive brain research that is being conducted, we know that our brains are not hard wired. We know the brain is plastic, and has the ability to reorganize itself every time we have new experiences. According to John Kounios, a psychology professor at Philadelphia’s Drexel University Medical School, neural connections change even after a 20-minute conversation. This gives new meaning to the positive impact a conversation can have with a coach or mentor when it focuses on high expectations that we have of ourselves.

What are your thoughts about yourself, about your as-yet untapped potential? On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your self-efficacy? What expectations do you have of yourself? What do you want to attract in your professional and personal life? What do you want to be known for in your leadership? I posed these questions to a dozen or so highly successful professionals in the technical arena. Without fail, everyone mentioned high expectations about their future; and the majority, being at a mid-life point, are looking for deeper philosophical answers to the profound question: “What’s next for me?”

One of the individuals directed me to Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness. The book takes the reader through the author’s own search for a better life and explores, among other things, how does one resolve tensions between family and work commitments, how do we find meaning and fulfillment and how do we create a good society within our own companies, even if we only have one person reporting to us?

“If Aristotle is right that the good life depends on developing one’s human potential, then providing the conditions in which employees can do so is a clear moral responsibility of leaders of work organizations … (Leaders who) deny employees the chance to develop their potential deny them the opportunity to develop their humanity.”

To live one’s life to its full potential, in accordance to the Aristotelian precepts, requires emotional and intellectual self-rigor. It also requires the ability to have high expectations of oneself, expectations that one would succeed at what might appear to be a lofty vision. If the possibility of generating creative and fulfilling experiences that fill our hearts and minds does not seem real and feasible, then we need to question the underlying assumptions that get us to see what we see and dispute these assumptions. In other words, we need to act as our own defence lawyer.

As Charles M. Schwab so aptly put it: “None of us is born with a stop valve on his powers or with a set limit to his capacities. There’s no limit possible to the expansion of each one of us.”

As for me, I need to stop seeing spiders as objects of fear and stop to marvel, instead, at the wondrous creativity of their intricate silk webs.

Bruna Martinuzzi is a senior consultant with Bluepoint Leadership Development in West Vancouver, B.C. She can be reached at [email protected].

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