Do people live up to our expectations?

Let’s answer some reader mail…

Piotr asks:

Do you sign up to the adage that people live up to our expectations (both at work and in life?

That’s a great question. And my answer today is different than it would have been a few years ago.

Like many, I used to think people live up to the expectations you set for them. Expect them to do well, and that “empowers” them to do well.

But really, isn’t that wildly egotistical? That it’s your expectations that determine if someone else does good work? Perhaps with a child this makes sense, but I don’t think it applies to well formed adults.

People do great work because that’s the kind of work they want to do. They care about the work, they care about themselves, they care about the people they’re working with, and they care about the people they’re doing the work for. They don’t do it because you expect them to do great work. You didn’t hire them to do shitty work, did you?

Yes, you can help motivate (or demotivate) people. Yes, you can help lead (or confuse) people. Yes, you can create an environment where people feel comfortable doing/acting/being their best (or worst). You can influence through your actions, and how you treat, and teach, and act towards them, but your expectations have nothing to do with their output.

So no, I don’t believe people live up to your expectations. I believe they live up or down to their own intrinsic motivations. They do good because they enjoy doing good. Doing good is meaningful for them.

But if people do live up to anything in someone else’s mind, it’s how much you trust them. I do believe that.

I remember way back in the day I used to work at a golf and tennis store. I primarily sold shoes and tennis rackets. I was 15 — I certainly didn’t know myself back then — so there were two people who had a direct influence on how well I did my job. My manager, Greg Sheehan. And the owner, Shelby Futch.

Greg was an amazing manager. He felt like a mentor. Mostly because he trusted me. He knew I was into shoe culture, he knew I read up on all this stuff, he could tell I paid attention to the rep when they came and showed us the new stuff, etc. So he let me do my job.

The owner, however… She wasn’t very kind. She was always looking over our shoulder. She was an outright racist and wasn’t kind to some of our customers. No one really liked working for her. I have no idea what she expected of us, but I certainly could tell she didn’t trust us.

So on one hand, I loved working with and for Greg. We felt like a team, we had each other’s backs. And everyone else who worked under Greg felt the same way. But we didn’t really like working for the owner. But ultimately, I just liked shoes, and I liked selling, and Greg trusted me to do my thing, so I did good work while I was there.

It was trust.