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Priming Expectations

A Powerful Leadership Tool: Priming with Future Positive Expectations

The powerful leadership skill of Priming Expectations increases offensive-zone focus and activates team performance!

The Concept

What we expect tends to happen more!

What our team holds in their “Future-Positive Focus,” they move toward!

People live up to the positive expectations of their coaches, or of other people with high influence in their lives. In my hockey journey I can remember coaches who believed in me more than I believed in myself. Those positive expectations generated very positive outcomes.

I have also noticed that priming expectations happens most often through intentional conversations with formal and informal leaders/influencers on teams. My NHL Agent, Herb Pinder, believed that 4 to 6 months after a coaching change in the NHL, the players on the team tended to take on the mindset, the energy, and the personality of that new coach.

I heard a surprising story recently of an NHL trade. As he had normally done throughout his career, the newly arrived player began talking about winning the Stanley Cup and how amazing this was going to be. Many of his new teammates approached him and explained that because of their particular superstitions, they preferred not to have this conversation or even talk about the Cup. The new player, who had been traded from a team where he had won a Cup, asked his superstitious teammates, “How can you win something that you won’t talk about?”

Our culture’s words are critical because they help focus our thinking. The neural networks devoted to language inform our actions and behaviours that then become our habits, and eventually the results of our team. Remember our new articulation during our last blog/e-newsletter that “CULTURE turns on Language?”The language (including voice-intonation, body language, facial expression, etc.) of our team culture is the prime tool to guide the shared expectations of our people.

One of The Oxford Dictionary definitions of Expectation as “a belief that someone will or should achieve something. ‘Students had high expectations for their future.’" Wikipedia describes Priming as a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.

Whether we recognize it or not, we are always positively or negatively priming ourselves and the people around us.

In my opinion, Robert Cialdini’s book The 6 Principles of Influence relates to the priming process. Cialdini believes that the first principle of Influence is Reciprocity (you’ll scratch my back if I scratch yours). He identifies an important key to actually using this principle. If, for example we have decided to give a gift to each of the participants at a conference, Cialdini recommends that to make the most of the principle of reciprocity…give first.

In other words, don’t wait until the end of the conference to deliver the gift; Prime people’s positive focus at the conference by placing the gift in their room or on their seat so they receive the gift as they arrive. This activates the principle of reciprocity and, incidentally, also begins the priming process. People may not reciprocate with an actual gift but invoking the reciprocity principle might win more of their attention or an increase in positivity during your time together.

Alia Crum, Peter Salovey, and Shawn Achor conducted a study at UBS. In the midst of the banking crisis and massive restructuring, they asked managers to watch one of two videos. The first depicted stress as debilitating to performance, and the second detailed the ways in which stress enhances the human brain and body.

When they evaluated the employees six weeks later, they found that the individuals who had viewed the “enhancing” video scored higher on the Stress Mindset Scale—that is, they saw stress as enhancing, rather than diminishing, their performance. And those participants experienced a significant drop in health problems and a significant increase in happiness at work. (Positive Intelligence: Three ways individuals can cultivate their own sense of well-being and set themselves up to succeed by Shawn Achor, HBR.)

Those two groups of managers were “primed” in two very different ways: “Enhancing” vs “Diminishing.” Words are important. They influence the relationship we have with our future.

Let’s explore how expectations and priming can impact the Future Positive energy of our people.

"Robert Rosenthal, during the 60s and 70s, drew early attention to the unconscious effect that our “expectations” have on behaviors and outcomes. In one experiment he conducted an IQ test in an elementary school, then randomly selected 20 percent of each class and informed the teachers that these students were likely to be showing signs of a spurt in intellectual growth and could be expected to outperform the others.

A year later he returned and repeated the test and found that the selected group showed significantly greater improvement than the others. In all grades from first to sixth the improvements were significant, with an average 12.22 percent IQ point gain.

The positive expectations of the teachers had entered the interactions: When the students performed particularly well, this confirmed the teacher’s expectations and reinforced their behavior. This in turn reinforced the achievement of the students.” (The Solutions Focus: Making Coaching and Change Simple, Mark McKergow)

What initially changed for these students? They didn’t all come in with high IQs. The primed belief system of their teachers created higher expectations and that increased the particular attention that generated the eventual IQ increase.

Key Statement to ponder this week: What expectations enter the interactions of your culture? What words are on the tip of your tongue (your beliefs about the processes and people in your team)? “We are not very good.” “Our team has no talent.” “We will never get focused.” Or, “This is the best team that I have ever played for.” “Our people are really making a difference.” The words (both INNER voice & OUTER voice) of our players highly influence the expectations in our culture.

During my mid-teens I experienced a situation similar to that presented in the Robert Rosenthal study. As a 14-year-old high school student I hung around a bunch of my buddies who were not focused on increasing their marks at school. In fact, we were all actually fine just getting by with Cs.

I then decided to accept an offer to play junior hockey at the age of 15. I subsequently left home, lived in a billet’s house with a highly ambitious roommate (Lane Lavik) and spent time with a completely different group of people. There were some 18,19, and 20-year old players on that team who recognized that they had better have options in case they didn’t play professional hockey. Consequently, they focused at excelling on and off the ice.

Guess who got primed by hanging around those players with higher expectations?

My marks went from C average to pretty much straight A's for the next couple of years at high school and University. What changed? Not my intellect! Hanging around a bunch of players who were highly focused on hockey and school primed me to raise my game and apply myself. My IQ didn’t miraculously increase, but my focus and work ethic sure did.

Teams do not just COME together (by accident); they are PRIMED together (by Expectation).

My wife Jenn and I travel North America working with leaders to help them better understand the language of their cultures, shift cultural energy and increase team performance. We use our Thinking Tendencies Model to give people a powerful visual that helps identify their cultural language for their purpose of shifting team energy.


One of the key ways to increase a Future-Positive Mindset (move towards what we want & develop more positive energy) with individuals and teams is to increase Positive Expectations. Playing more minutes in the OFFENSIVE Zone pays off - on and off the ice. Priming positive action and articulating Future-Positive Expectations re-focuses our team thinking towards accomplishing our better future.

A meta-analysis of 225 academic studies has suggested that shifting people from negative, neutral or stressed up into positivity (what we call the ‘OFFENSIVE ZONE’) can increase performance by 31%. (Positive Intelligence: Three ways individuals can cultivate their own sense of well-being and set themselves up to Succeed by Shawn Achore HBR))

Positive expectations help SHIFT a negative mindset.

Words and coaching conversations count!

Your voice has a powerful impact, one way or the other.

The goal of young “developing leaders” must be to look for more ways to be intentional in how they prime and set expectations during their conversations. It starts with us… right leaders?

Because the lesson that all leaders eventually learn is that “our people emulate our ENERGY!”


The “SHIFT” of the week.

Catch yourself BLAMING (P-) and “SHIFT” to being THANKFUL (P+).

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