If you are managing someone, or teaching them, or coaching them, this presupposition matters, because your expectations of who they are and what they are capable of will actually influence their performance.
Studies have been proving this for decades. In the 1960s, Harvard psychology professor Robert Rosenthal set up an experiment where elementary school teachers were told that certain children were likely to show signs of a spurt in intellectual development. Sure enough, at the end of the year, the children in the experimental group showed a significant gain in IQ points over the control group – but in fact, the children had been selected at random! The only difference was the teachers’ expectations.
What’s more, when children in the so-called ‘lower track’ started to show unexpected signs of intellectual improvement, their teacher evaluations marked them down on things like ‘personal adjustment’, ‘happiness’ and ‘affectionate’.
Similar results have been reproduced in higher education, in management, and even with researchers’ expectations of laboratory animals. The lesson is that if you are teaching, or managing, or coaching someone, your expectations of their potential will become self-fulfilling prophesies, especially if they look up to you and respect you. This is also true of your expectations of yourself. Expect the best, and you will be more likely to get it.
Another way of putting this presupposition is that there are no unresourceful people, only unresourceful states. We all have amazing and tremendously capable brains, capable of logic, planning and rational decisions. Your brain contains around a billion neurons, or brain cells, and I’m reliably informed that the total number of potential pathways through the brain is in the region of 3 x 10^5,000,000,000 – or more than the total number of atoms in the known universe.
The cerebral cortex, which is the wrinkly surface that you see in any diagram of the brain, is the part of the brain that does that rational thinking; in each one of us, it has the ability to look at things from different perspectives, make new connections, reframe events, and put things into perspective. That’s how we normally get over shocks and upsets, and also how we get new ideas.
Just because we have these amazing brains, it doesn’t mean we always use them. Remember when Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear in the WBA Heavyweight Boxing championship in 1997? Or when Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, quite probably leading to his team losing? Or any incident of road rage?
As well as the cerebral cortex, we also have older parts of the brain that process fight or flight responses and emotions – sometimes known as the lizard brain and the horse brain respectively, because the structures are pretty similar in us and other animals. When we are in the grip of a strong emotion like rage or panic, the thinking part of the brain pretty much shuts down and people think and act like a cornered animal. They forget about nuances and adopting different viewpoints and see things in an all-or-nothing, black and white way. “Strong emotions make us stupid” as neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux points out in his book The Emotional Brain.
So it doesn’t matter how intelligent or capable someone is – if they are in an unresourceful state, they won’t be able to get the results they want. NLP gives you practical ways of accessing resourceful states, and so being able to get the results you want.
Now some readers may be thinking “‘Everyone has all the resources they need to succeed’ – that’s easy for a university-educated middle-aged white guy to say. Some people really don’t have a chance because of social conditions.” The thing is, no matter what restrictions of class, wealth, gender or disability you care to name, you will find someone who has transcended them – whether it’s Nelson Mandela coming back from 18 years hard labour on Robben Island and a total of 27 years in prison to become president of South Africa and guide the country peacefully through the transition from white minority rule; or JK Rowling moving from single mother on benefits to multi-millionaire best-selling author within five years, or Helen Keller, left deaf and blind by an illness she contracted at 19 months, who went on to become the author of 12 published books, the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, and one of the most admired people of the 20th Century.
Just as in the ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom‘ experiment, when people think of themselves or others as limited, they run the risk of putting artificial ceilings on what they can achieve. Start from the presupposition that people have all the resources they need to succeed, and you make success much more likely.
Books mentioned in this article:
© 2011, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.