The Power of Belief

Believe you can do a thing, or believe you cannot. In either case you're right.

By 1954, many people had come close to running a mile in under four minutes. Times of 4:03, 4:02 and even 4:01 had been posted. But 4:00 seemed to be the limit. People started believing it was physically impossible--no matter how much training or ability--for a human to run a mile in under 4 minutes. Many scientists and doctors agreed.

Then on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile in less than 4 minutes--to the shock of the world. Asked how he'd accomplished the impossible, Bannister answered, "It was never a physical barrier, it was a mental barrier." Bannister believed he could run as fast as he did. Once Bannister proved it could be done, other runners believed it, too. Within one year, 37 runners broke the belief barrier to run a sub 4-minute mile. The year after that, 300 other runners did the same thing.

Before they became management and educational buzz words, Henry Ford captured the concept of "self-fulfilling prophecy" when he said,

"Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right."

Today there's little doubt in business, athletics, education, the military and law enforcement that people's beliefs and expectations can incredibly affect their own performance. But, as a leader or trainer, can your beliefs about the officers, recruits and staff you lead or train, affect their performance? And, if so, how?

The Pygmalion Effect aka The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The Pygmalion Effect has been so studied and documented that it is a mainstay in business schools and teacher training programs. The term comes from a Greek myth about a sculptor named Pygmalion. Much later, George Bernard Shaw wrote a play loosely based on the myth, from which the musical and movie My Fair Lady was adapted. There's a web link below where those inclined can read more about the myth, the play, and the musical.

The management and teacher training concept is this. We treat people, consciously or unconsciously, consistent with our beliefs about them. In response, they act in a manner consistent with our beliefs--even if those beliefs are inaccurate. Their responding behavior then confirms our beliefs and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy--for us and them.

Oft-repeated class experiments establish that when teachers are led to believe that some children are bright, gifted, quick learners, the performance of those children can be improved by as much as twice that over other children in the class. Similarly, when a teacher is told those same children are slow, dull learners, their performance significantly decreases.

Comparable experiments have been documented in the work world. Researcher Albert King conducted an experiment on the power of managers' beliefs. In the experiment, the president of a company separately gave four managers of comparable plants identical changes in work procedures. The president individually told the managers of plants one and two that he expected the new procedures to increase productivity, but have no effect on morale (as measured by grievances, absences and turnover). He advised the managers of plants three and four that he expected the same procedures to have no effect on productivity, but would increase morale.

What do you think happened? Across the nation, law enforcement leaders and trainers respond that morale and productivity went up in all the plants. They reason that in plants three and four, when morale went up, productivity increased as a result, and that in plants one and two, when productivity increased, workers were more satisfied. Instead, the results in all four plants were exactly what the president told the managers he believed they would be.

Just as in the classroom, the president's stated belief carried the day with the managers--and with the workers. This experiment, many times repeated in different forms, defied current thought. Most people assumed that if morale went up, so would productivity. But we've all known happy, lazy workers. In fact, they may be happier than the rest of us who take up their slack because they're getting paid the same for doing much less. Not even an increase in morale affected productivity as powerfully as the President's beliefs.

How brawny are your beliefs?

Your beliefs impact the performance of those you lead and train--in ways you may not even be aware. In the many referenced studies and experiments, the teachers and managers didn't tell their workers and students about their beliefs. Nonetheless, those beliefs got communicated in indirect ways--by what they said or didn't say, their tone of voice, their body language (sometimes as subtle as an arched eyebrow or flared nostril), how often they interacted with the children or workers, etc.

The first thing leaders and trainers who want to wield a positive power of belief need to do is get to the bottom of their beliefs and how they might, even unintentionally, be communicating them. Ask yourself the following questions, adapted from Encouraging the Heart--A Leader's Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others, by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner.

  • How would I honestly rate my expectations of those I lead? High? Moderate? Low?
  • What behaviors of people I consider low performers contribute to my view of them?
  • What behaviors of mine reflect my reaction to and expectation of low performers?
  • Might my expectations and behaviors be influencing the performance of people I consider low performers?
  • What behaviors of people I consider high performers contribute to my view of them?
  • What behaviors of mine reflect my reaction to and expectation of high performers?
  • Might my expectations and behaviors be influencing the performance of people I consider high performers?
  • Am I more or less cynical than when I first began working in policing?
  • How am I communicating this view?
  • How am I influencing others with this view?
  • To what extent and how does my behavior say, "I'm here looking for people doing things right and doing the right things?"
  • To what extent and how does my behavior say, "I'm checking up on you" or "I'm looking for problems"?
  • How often do I communicate positive beliefs about the people I lead? How do I communicate such beliefs?

Then, if you're a brave leader or trainer, ask those you lead to answer these questions about you.

Can't think of how you might be expressing different expectations and beliefs about low and high performers? Here are some examples: (From Accel-Team, web link below.)

  • Interrupting lows more frequently than highs
  • Demanding less work and effort from lows than highs
  • Providing lows less feedback about their work performance than highs
  • Praising lows more frequently than highs for marginal or inadequate performance
  • Praising lows less frequently than highs after successful efforts
  • Criticizing lows more frequently than highs for mistakes
  • Providing less help or advice to lows than highs
  • Waiting less time for lows to state their opinion
  • Calling on lows less often to work on special projects, state their opinions or give presentations
  • Giving lows less information about what's going on in the department
  • Smiling less often and making less eye contact or other acknowledgements with lows than highs in work situations
  • Placing lows in less prestigious seating or office locations in the department than highs

Believe they can do a thing, or believe they cannot. In either case, you'll be right.

Bottom line? Consciously or not, we communicate our beliefs about those we lead and train. We exhibit thousands of cues, some as subtle as tilting our heads, or raising our eyebrows, but most are much more obvious. People pick up on those cues and will behave according to our beliefs about them. But, what a great bottom line! YOU have the power to change officers' performance just by changing your expectations and beliefs. How much does that cost? A bit of brave self-examination is all. After you complete the above questions, try your own experiment. Treat your low performing officers or recruits like you do high performers. Then hold on. You'll soon be a believer in your own power of belief.

The best leaders believe, no matter what their role, people can achieve high standards. This is a power so strong, even if others don't believe in themselves, the leader's belief can give rise to self-confidence--to a "Yes, I can." And, as Henry Ford and Roger Bannister understood, once they believe they can, they do.

Next month we'll look at some practical tips for how-to give those you lead and train the power of your positive expectations and beliefs.