We all have expectations. Expectations of ourselves. Expectations of our jobs. And expectations of our employees. Sometimes our expectations are clearly stated, and other times they stay so subtly buried in the back of our minds that we don’t realize they are there. How do those expectations impact job performance? And what role do they play in employee engagement solutions?

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In the episode “Becoming Batman”, the NPR podcast Invisibilia — a program about the invisible forces that control human behavior — explored the ways that our unspoken thoughts and expectations influence others’ behavior and success. The hosts described a study that randomly assigned labels of “smart” and “stupid” to a group of rats that were basically the same – they had all been bred from the same parents in the same environment. When researchers did experiments, the “smart” rats performed twice as well as the “stupid” rats.

It’s not that the labels lowered the rats’ IQ or ruined the rats’ self-esteem. Instead, the labels changed the way researchers treated the rats: gently for “smart,” not so gently for “stupid.” The handling directly affected the rats’ performance. In other words, the researchers’ unspoken expectations changed their own behavior, often in subtle ways. As a result, they ended up encouraging the rats to live up (or down) to those expectations.

Consider how your unspoken expectations affect your employees’ engagement. Think of the difference between encouraging an employee to take a risk because you think they make good decisions vs. the employee who you just don’t want to take the lead on any new projects because you don’t trust that they’ll perform. Who’s more likely to be engaged?

Expectations directly affect the success of your employee engagement solutions.

Employee Engagement Solutions That Encourage High Expectations

How do you build positive, high (yet realistic) expectations into your employee engagement solutions?

In a word: recognition.

Recognition strengthens all four pillars of a comprehensive employee experience: connection, appreciation, meaning and impact. Building it into your company culture and employee engagement solutions sets a structure for managers to have realistically high expectations of their employees.

Studies show that managers of winning teams give feedback at a ratio of 5.6 positive comments for each negative comment. This may not be natural for many managers. The baby boomers and gen-X’ers – who hold the bulk of management jobs today – grew up in a culture where that level of positive feedback wasn’t the norm. Thank you’s came in the form of paychecks and employees more often heard from their boss when there was a problem – not for pats on the back or productive guidance. However, today’s employees crave ongoing positive recognition.

Recognizing an employee for specific positive behaviors encourages that employee to do more of those behaviors, thereby boosting their job performance. And as a side bonus – recognition boosts their engagement. In one study, 81% of employees said they’ll work harder when their boss shows appreciation. And it creates a self-sustaining cycle. An employee who delivers higher performance inspires higher manager expectations.

The process of seeking out behaviors to recognize also transforms managers. Spending days asking “what are we doing well?” and “how can we be even better?” instead of “how do we fix what’s wrong?” is a game-changer. This change strengthens manager-employee relationships, motivation, and even the manager’s own engagement level.

To sum it all up, positive expectations build employee engagement. But if you want an employee engagement solution based on positive expectations — start by building recognition into your company culture.

About YouEarnedIt

YouEarnedIt is the employee experience platform powered by the science of motivation and the mission of improving the lives of employees everywhere, one company at a time. Founded in 2013, YouEarnedIt grows company culture and improves bottom-line performance metrics through its robust engagement platform that delivers recognition, rewards, incentives, and team insights. Named to Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of Best Company Cultures in 2017, the Austin-based SaaS company and its technology platform are built on the four pillars of employee experience: connection, meaning, impact and appreciation. To request a demo, visit www.youearnedit.com/demo.

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Susan Mack