Driver's Ed: Winning employers accentuate the positive


So I’m standing outside one of the most universally detested places in the known world. You guessed it: the DMV. Next to my dentist’s office, I can think of nowhere I’d less like to be. You can tell I’m at the DMV by the long lines, the generally morose, fatalistic look on people’s faces (employees and clients alike), and the battered ’70s furniture that looks like it could survive a nuclear holocaust. It’s not exactly a “Disney moment” for me, but not because of any of the above—in fact, I hardly notice any of it.

You see, I’m waiting for my teenage daughter to return from her driving test. So, instead of observing my surroundings, I’m pacing back and forth, wearing a rut between two columns in front of the building—doing my best impression of a George Romero zombie—imagining all the things that might be going wrong.

Which is silly. My daughter and I have logged numerous (dare I say, endless) hours practicing, hours in which she’s performed admirably. Sure, she’s made a few mistakes along the way, but none of them drastic, and she’s learned from each of them. She’s smart, capable and ready. In fact, if I’m honest with myself, I know she’s going to be fine…but then the dad genes kick in and I begin pacing again.

In the middle of my 87th trip across the entryway, I feel a tapping on my shoulder, and turn to see my daughter, beaming, with the form in her hand bearing the word “PASS” in bold Sharpie letters. After a hug that nearly knocks me over, I of course say, “I knew you could do it!”

And I did.

And she knew I did.

Sure, I had concerns, even worries; but at the end of the day, I was confident in her, and, more importantly, I had let her know it…repeatedly. In fact, I’m sure she got tired of me saying, “I know you can do this” whenever she had doubts or began to struggle. I knew she needed to develop confidence in herself, or she’d never make it.

Henry Ford once famously said, “Whether you think you can or cannot, either way you are right.” Numerous studies since then have proven him right. Yet managers and leaders persist in supporting systems and cultures that focus on criticism, control and negative feedback, systems that erode employee self-esteem and are built on the expectation of the worst.
The sad thing is that these systems—and the management styles that support them—are indeed self-fulfilling prophecies.

Witness perceptions about young women and math. In general, despite advances over the years, there is still a general perception, in society—but more importantly in school—that females are simply “not good” at math. Try Googling the topic and you will find no less than a dozen studies (Columbia University, The Journal of Educational Psychology, et al.) that show that this perception virtually ensures its own accuracy by undermining the confidence of young women in this regard. They “know” they’re not supposed to be good at math; so, strangely enough, they aren’t.

Before Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954, it had been generally assumed that it was physiologically impossible. After all, it had never been done in recorded sports history. Yet within three years of Bannister achieving this “impossible” feat, 16 other runners had done the same. It’s clear that once runners had the confidence to know they could do it (or more precisely, no longer felt they couldn’t do it), they became empowered to do so.

Bannister himself backed this theory up 50 years later: “There was a mystique, a belief that it couldn’t be done, but I think it was more of a psychological barrier than a physical barrier.”
Perhaps as important as one’s self-confidence (and contributory to it), are the expectations of others with whom one interacts. The Rosenthal-Jacobson studies of the 1960s—updated in 1992—proved this to be the case, and similar studies have reinforced the efficacy of this so-called “Pygmalion Effect.”

In the Rosenthal-Jacobson study, teachers were informed that one group of students was more “gifted” than the other (when, in fact, they were both at a similar level). The teachers’ disparate perceptions/expectations of the two groups led them to treat the groups differently, which ultimately contributed to significant differences in performance. In short, the allegedly “gifted” group performed better than the “normal” group simply by virtue of the teachers’ expectations.

Translation: Students (and employees) will tend to live up to your expectations, positive or negative.

Companies and employers that are bogged down with policies, systems and procedures built on the premise that employees will try to take advantage and misbehave whenever possible send a message that they expect employees to do so. Strangely enough, those employers tend to get just what they expect.

Companies that treat employees like adults tend to get employees that act like adults. Supervisors who communicate confidence and trust that employees will meet expectations are generally rewarded for that confidence and trust: Employees not only meet the expectations; they exceed them.

Captain Mike Abrashoff, in his book It’s Your Ship, put it this way: “I focused on building self-esteem… Instead of tearing people down to make them into robots, I tried to show them that I trusted them and believed in them.” It must have worked. Under Abrashoff’s command, USS Benfold went from being one of the worst ships in the U.S. Navy to, literally, “the best damn ship in the Navy.”

To be sure, there will always be exceptions, individuals who will try to take advantage of the system: the ones for whom the phrase “give ’em and inch and they’ll take a mile” was designed. But that’s just it: They’re the exception. Treating everyone as if they were the exception virtually ensures you’ll get that “exceptional” behavior from everyone.
At the end of the day, perhaps the best question is this: Where would you rather work? After all, you’re in the driver’s seat. I know you can do it.

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes comments or questions via e-mail at