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Expect the Best: How A Leader’s Expectations Can Transform Teams - The unexpected influence of a leader’s mindset

As happens in the hallowed halls of Harvard, two sets of students were given two different groups of rats to run through a maze. Dr. Robert Rosenthal, who was conducting the experiment, informed the students that one set of rats was "bright"—smart and good at running mazes. The other set of rats was "dull"—slow and easily confused in a maze.[i]


He asked the students to run their rats and score their times. As expected, the bright rats performed brilliantly and quickly made it to the end of the maze. The dull rats struggled in the same maze. Uncertain, lost, or confused, they just had a more difficult time navigating it quickly. Or so the students thought.

There were, in fact, no bright rats or dull rats. All of the rats were normal lab rats. Dr. Rosenthal had randomly assigned each rat to a group labeled "bright" or "dull." Subconsciously, this difference in expectations led the students to relate to the rats differently. The normal lab rats performed up or down to the students' expectations.

Variations of this study have been repeated many times, particularly in classrooms where teachers' expectations influenced students' performances. Time and again, students live up (or down) to the unspoken expectations.[ii]

The expectancy effect is so powerful that a research methodology called "double-blind" trials is now considered a gold standard for some kinds of research, especially medical research. In these trials, neither the subjects nor the researchers know who has been given the actual treatment or who has received the placebo, controlling for biases and expectations.[iii]

Both the placebo effect and the expectancy effect describe quantifiable, tangible results that are entirely due to perception. Perception (what is believed) influences reality (what can be observed and measured).[iv]

Leadership Is A Relationship

Leadership is a relationship—this is true always.[v] The way we choose to relate to those around us and the way we help them relate to others are what makes or breaks leaders. This extends to our customers or clients, our employees, our partners, and so on.[vi]

We predispose ourselves for or against successful relationships based on how we see others. Since leadership is a relationship, our success as leaders is tied to how we see others.

Putting it into practice: Try this thought experiment: Identify one person at work (or at home) who makes you feel frustrated or disappointed. Without self-editing, list the first eight words that come to mind that describe this person. How does that list lean? Positive? Negative?

For many people, the list will lean negative. Try this: Rewrite your list with eight true descriptions about that person that are positive or affirming.

For the next 21 days, before you interact with that person, thoughtfully review this new list, imagining that person and those positive traits one by one. Each day add to your list one new positive description—or something you are grateful for—about that person.

Try this and see if your relationship with those you lead doesn't start to change. It's not a magic wand, but you are changing the conditions for success.


[i]Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The Urban Review, 3(1), 16-20.

[ii] Jussim, L., & Harber, K. D. (2005). Teacher expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies: Knowns and unknowns, resolved and unresolved controversies. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 9(2), 131-155.

[iii] Schulz, K. F., & Grimes, D. A. (2002). Blinding in randomised trials: hiding who got what. The Lancet, 359(9307), 696-700.

[iv] Kirsch, I. (1985). Response expectancy as a determinant of experience and behavior. American Psychologist, 40(11), 1189-1202.

[v] Rost, J. C. (1991). Leadership for the twenty-first century. Greenwood Publishing Group.

[vi] Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The leadership challenge (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


© Christian Muntean 2024; This excerpt is from Train to Lead: The Unstoppable Leader’s Plan for Peak Performance, by Christian Muntean. Reach him at


Christian Muntean is a leadership consultant with extensive experience in business strategy and organizational development. He is the author of several books including "Train to Lead: The Unstoppable Leader’s Plan for Peak Performance." Christian's insights have been featured in major publications such as He lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and enjoys woodworking and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Learn more at Christian Muntean's website.



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