How can business leaders engineer higher performance?

People assume the qualities of the roles they’re assigned. People who wear surgical scrubs, judge’s robes, or uniforms understand this. Uniforms create a feedback loop from bystanders – even a tentative rookie will step-up under scrutiny from a crowd that expects them to succeed or to perform in a predictable way.  People also routinely commit the fundamental attribution error – they assign values and assume expertise where none exists. Best demonstrated each time someone asks a Doctor how to invest their money. This question flows from an assumption that high achievement and domain knowledge in one area translates to other domains.

Alternatively, self-confidence can overcome negative bias, since it can be difficult to identify an expert out of context – someone wearing tattered clothes who walks up and declares – “I’m a Doctor” will get everyone’s attention. Think about the Holiday Inn commercials when self-confident people tackle a challenge they would otherwise be unprepared for – at the end revealing they have no qualifications except that they “stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.” Alternatively, consider how people treated Frank Abagnale Jr. when he forged checks as a nineteen year old pilot for Pan Am Airways. Countless examples were acted out by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2002 Steven Spielberg film, “Catch Me If You Can.”

Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, was famous for driving an old pickup truck and wearing unassuming clothes. Sam’s been used as an example to sales people in luxury-goods industries as the reason they should treat everyone who walks through the door as a potential customer.

Our bias is predictable and easy to uncover. The day after Martin Luther King was assassinated In 1968, Jane Elliott, a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa, divided her class for an exercise about discrimination. Students were arbitrarily divided into two groups – blue eyes, superior, and brown eyes, inferior. The blue eyed group was placed in charge, and brown eyed students were not allowed to use the playground equipment or the drinking fountain. Students were told that blue-eyed students were naturally better at math, English, and other skills, while brown eyed students were told they were not as good. The next day, Jane announced she had made a mistake and the roles were reversed.

Immediately, previously low-performing blue-eyed students were producing better work – they were trying harder, while high-performing brown-eyed children started to perform below their previous levels. Jane Elliott’s impact on education is significant, her experiment in Riceville created the foundation for her work as a speaker and coach about discrimination, and diversity training for corporations and colleges around the world. In 1970, her third group was filmed and a documentary was released called “Eye of the Storm.” In 1985 Frontline created a program about the experiment, based on a book by the same title, “A Class Divided” and it includes footage from the 1970 documentary. You can watch it here.

Jane tested her students regularly and found that scores went down during the time a student was part of the low expectation group, and up during their participation in a high performing group. But another effect was more surprising. After their participation in the experiment all students’ scores increased. Researchers at Stanford reviewed the results and concluded that the brown eyes, blue eyes experiment led to a dramatic change in the students performance – the act of believing you could do better showed the kids they were able to achieve more, to perform better, and evidence presented during their time as “high performers” increased their self-confidence and performance.

Jane Elliott already demonstrated how discrimination is manufactured. In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo and other researchers at Stanford, wanted to measure how role expectations could change behavior, outlook, and self-esteem, in a study about prisons sponsored by the U.S. Navy. They devised an experiment where young men were randomly selected to be guards or prisoners in the 1971 Stanford prison experiment. Twenty-four students participated in the mock-prison; guards quickly asserted control over the prisoners, and subjected them to various forms of psychological torture. Most of the prisoners accepted their treatment, but a few resisted, only to be attacked by other prisoners who helped guards keep everyone in line.

“Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.” Philip G. Zimbardo

Both experiments offer important lessons for us. It’s a small leap to recognize that leaders and managers who encourage and support their teams, will generate higher performance, while the reverse is true too. People will perform to the expectations others set for them, and knowledge about their situation does not automatically reverse the effects.

Engineering human performance – or how to create a pre-determined outcome. When you put someone in charge, they’ll step up to perform well, make sound decisions, and generally do the right thing. In most businesses, when the boss is away, subordinates need to find another senior leader to sign documents, approve budgets, expense reports, and other decisions to operate the business – this is the ‘disposition attribution‘ theory at work; businesses incorrectly assume that sound decision-making is a function of the employee’s level. The military operates using the ‘situational attribution‘ theory; decision-making authority rests with the senior person present. When the boss is gone, the next person in line has the authority to make operational decisions required to complete immediate tasks. This quality causes soliders, sailors, and airmen to view leadership as a condition of their circumstances rather than their pedigree. They are not paralyzed by the loss of a leader, because even the lowliest Army of one has someone in charge.

The military experience provides evidence to support conclusions by Jane Elliott and the Stanford researchers, but those lessons have not yet penetrated business leadership principles in a meaningful way. Now you have a chance to make a positive, lasting difference, and as you do, think about how what you’ve just learned influences leadership rotation programs, recruiting practices, and B-scale pay plans.

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