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Center for Enlightened Leadership

The Power of Expectation

  Peter and Anne Selby
  Peter and Anne Selby

Of all the elementary forces that shape the psyche, expectation is one of the most influential. Whether for good or for ill, all of us have been exposed to fundamental shaping by other people’s expectations, not to mention our own. I am personally very grateful for the encouragement I received from my father, who believed in me and expected me to succeed in whatever I chose to undertake in life. I cannot remember a single instance in which he projected negatively on my potential. He supported me to earn my pilot’s license at the earliest legal age, never raising the issue of how dangerous flying could be. He simply expected me to fly safely. On the other hand, beginning when I was 5, my alcoholic stepmother’s capricious negativity imprinted itself strongly on my identity and self-esteem. As a result, I have personally experienced both the upside and the downside of expectations on my own character and behaviors. As the old parable about the contest between the good dog and the bad dog goes, the outcome depends on which dog you feed. How your character develops is determined by what you believe about and expect of yourself. You can have positive people all around you telling you all the right things, but your life will be most influenced by what you tell yourself and what parts of yourself you choose to focus on and nourish. Developing your better qualities leads to even more goodness within you.

Because we are so strongly influenced by the expectations of those around us from our earliest days, the expectations we hold for ourselves can be deeply buried in our subconscious. We typically absorb other people’s expectations for us before we have formed our own sense of self and our own authentic goals that reflect our native abilities, gifts, interests, and passions. The innocence of children renders them very susceptible to other people’s projected agendas and expectations—all the while remaining unconsciously receptive to their opinions and the preordained biases being projected on them, without any conscious filtering by them whatever.

The expectations embedded in one’s culture, religion, or ethnic group/tribe also have tremendous power to shape character and actions, even projecting forward from previous generations—so-called lineage or ancestral influences. Thus, if education carried a high premium for the generations before us, we may be induced to hold the same values without knowing why. We may not feel an authentic passion for higher education yet still be driven to pursue a Ph.D. Obviously this could be a good thing, or it could create a deep sense of having missed the calling of our own authentic passion. Beyond that, we could be pushed to overshoot our abilities and suffer the pitfalls of self-condemnation and inadequacy around our failures. God only knows how much untold suffering, and even suicide, has been caused by the failure to clear the hidden high bars of achievement that are often foisted on the unaware.

Similarly, negative expectations can lower the bar, or even remove it, so that ambition dies before it gets out of the gate. Ironically, those who voice low opinions of someone may be expecting that their disapproval and low expectations will motivate the one they disapprove of to improve themselves and thus prove them wrong. Perhaps this is the implicit downside of the grading system in schools: students who receive low grades can lose motivation rather than picking themselves up and trying harder. This effect is made worse when the classmates of such students form low opinions of them and reinforce the negativity. Most of us have suffered from the perception that other people disapprove of us and discount our ability or intelligence. This can create deep wounds to one’s self-esteem—especially in young children, given their innocence and vulnerability. Ideally, we learn early in life that everyone is welcome to their own opinions and that what others think of us need be of no concern to us. The wounding associated with other people’s negative expectations can be unconsciously incorporated in one’s psyche and result in self-sabotage and a broken spirit. The most precious thing a child can hear from loved ones and authority figures is the vote of confidence that they can achieve whatever they put their mind to, at the same time being encouraged not to push themselves beyond the natural pace of their own development.

We may not know consciously that we are encountering somebody’s unspoken expectations, but we all have an “other people’s agenda” detector in our intuitive being that senses the tension associated with unspoken expectations and communicates that tension within us through a bad feeling or a sense that we’re being manipulated or disapproved of. One effective response is to directly challenge the other person to explicitly name what they want and to be overt. This approach is generally not socially acceptable, however, and requires a lot of ego strength and courage. Outing hidden agendas is not likely to be popular with authority figures such as bosses and the people who wish to control us. Most people avoid confronting such expectations and simply comply superficially to appease the other person, while possibly betraying themselves. For some personalities, it’s easier to hurt oneself than to strike out at another.

There’s an old saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” In this case “Mama” stands for the transformative power of moods and subtle (and not-so-subtle) emotional displays that serve to express a person’s thoughts, opinions, and expectations indirectly. Everyone has this “Mama” inside themselves. Attempts to manipulate other people’s behavior through projecting moodiness (as opposed to direct communication) can effectively communicate one’s expectations but damage the relationship. We can see into the nature of our subconscious expectations toward ourselves and others through observing the effect we create on the world around us, revealing our true motivation and expectations of those to whom we relate.

Great leaders bring out the best in people by helping them to connect to their own positivity and authentic motivation. Such leaders are able to motivate those around them by displaying great respect for the sovereign choices of those they lead, without resorting to pretense or manipulation. It is a mark of a leader’s clarity and strength of character that they can convey their intentions and expectations so effectively and thus bring out the best in others.


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