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The Magical Power of Expectations


By Eric Kaufmann, President, Sagatica, LLC

Your self-concept is made of expectations, and it drives you. Your expectations are the constant thoughts you weave into a narrative story about who you are and how the world works. You are what you think. Fortunately, your self-concept isn’t fixed, and if you want to have a different experience as a leader or professional, you can adjust your story. But your expectations do more than shape your experience, they directly affect others, too. As an influencer – in leadership, sales, or legal situations – your expectations of your people have a direct and measurable influence on their performance and achievement.

In 1964, Dr. Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard professor, conducted a seminal study on the power of expectations. He set out to determine if students’ results can be shaped by their teachers’ expectations. In an elementary school in South San Francisco he instructed the teachers that a new test of learning potential (actually a standardized IQ test dressed it up with a new title) could predict student success. He then tested all the students and randomly selected 20% of the student body (whose test scores were no better or worse than their peers). He proceeded to tell their teachers that these students’ test scores indicated that they were poised for a leap of intellectual growth and ripe for academic excellence.

Rosenthal followed the children’s performance for the next two years and discovered that teacher expectations demonstrably affected these kids: they expected greater gains in IQ from children in this group, and these kids subsequently gained more IQ. He found that as the teachers in the study thought about the high potential of their high achievers, they changed how they conceived, engaged, and worked with them. Because of their expectations, teachers treated the “special” group of students in different ways. They received more smiles, nods, and affirming touches. They were given more time to answer questions and more specific feedback on their answers.

Leaders influence their people in the same way. And it is the same principle that shapes our internal experience as we define ourselves with our thoughts and beliefs. We become what we focus on and what we expect of ourselves. The Dhammapada (Buddhist verses from the 3rd century BCE) explains that we are the result of all we have thought. We are founded on our thoughts; we are made up of our thoughts. You are what you think. If you think that you can only manage a small team, and expect and believe that you can’t lead a large organization, you’re probably right. If you think that people won’t be completely compelled by your presentations, you are likely to be ineffective in influencing people to change behavior. Your repetitive thoughts about yourself are your “self-image.” This view, this aggregate of thoughts, predicts your capabilities as well as your limitations; it is how you see yourself, both positively and negatively.

Your currently held self-expectations were formed without effort and with no will-power; they are based on memory, crafted from beliefs, formed from relationships with significant others and how you interpreted childhood events. The objective of evolving humanity is self-realization. Self-Realization is a belief in your own uniqueness as a human being, a sense of deep and wide awareness of people and situations, and a feeling of constructively influencing others.

If you’re not achieving the results you are striving for, it’s highly likely that your self-image is outdated. To change your results please consider the following tools to update your self-concept and attain your greatest aspirations.

Be Aware

Take some time to write down who you are right now. What are your qualities and values? What do you consider as negative about yourself? In which situations do your negative beliefs about yourself pop us?

Question your comfort zone

Realize that while you may not like your limiting self-concept, it is a comfort zone. These thoughts and beliefs are running on auto-pilot; albeit an outdated one. Commit to stepping beyond your comfort zone and experiment with expressing yourself differently in select arenas. If, for example, your comments in a meeting are usually focused on tactics, then articulate big picture observations and see how that feels.

Craft a deliberate Self-Image

With awareness comes choice. By becoming aware of your strengths, fears, expectations, and values you create options. By answering “Who am I?” you can rewrite your narrative, reduce the intensity of your negative self-beliefs, and draw to mind your positive self-concept. Write this story about yourself and read it daily for a month. You will begin to make choices from the mindset of this new self-concept.

Find your Tribe

Jim Rohn said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Be selective about those with whom you spend your time, they will reinforce you to yourself. Find the people who inspire you, and share with them your vision for yourself. Let your circle – your tribe – help propel you toward your emerging vision of yourself.


Surprisingly, our brain cannot distinguish real from imagined data. Think right now about biting into a slice of lemon, and you start salivating. Visualize yourself as being the person you’re describing. Picture, imagine, or feel yourself in situations you’d like to change, and visualize how you behave and the choices you make with peers, bosses, loved ones, and strangers. Mentally rehearse your new responses and actions and be pleasantly surprised to experience these behaviors in real-time.

Eric Kaufmann coaches and consults executives and teams across multiple industries with clients such as Genentech, Alcon Labs, Illumina, Sony, and Sunpower. He is the founder and president of Sagatica, LLC. and the author of The Four Virtues of a Leader: Navigating the Hero’s Journey Through Risk to Results. Eric lives in San Diego, CA, where he is a Master Scuba Diving Instructor and a life-long practitioner of Zen Meditation. For more, visit or call 619.668.8500

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