Here's How to Get What You Really Want

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If you ask my wife about my best traits, "flexible" won't be on her list. So I couldn't wait to tell her, one day, what a long-time client said.

"Apparently," I said, "I'm the most flexible consultant she's ever worked with."

"Apparently," my wife said, "she's never had lunch with you."

My wife has a point here. I'm the sort of person who orders salad "with dressing on the side," a tuna sandwich "without extra mayo," and iced tea "with very little ice."

But my client wasn't talking lunch. And she wasn't just complimenting me, she was subtly influencing me. "I value flexibility," she was basically saying. "Keep doing that."

How do you communicate expectations?

There's a big difference, for example, between telling a child, "if you go to college," versus saying, "when you go to college."

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Suppose, as a manager, you believe in Theory X. That's what Douglas McGregor, years ago, called the expectation that employees are lazy and unmotivated.

Theory Y, according to McGregor, is the opposite expectation. And a Theory Y manager will create a different climate and get different results than a Theory X manager.

Sometimes, you and I convey our expectations nonverbally, without even realizing it.

One disturbing study (take a breath here) involved rats. Lab technicians were given some rats, and then told they had to learn to run a maze.

Note: It was the rats who had to run the maze, not the lab techs. But if I were a lab tech, I'd definitely learn to run the maze, or run the hallways, or run for my life—anything to escape the rats.

Some lab techs were told their rats were super-smart and would learn the maze quickly. Other techs were told the opposite. And, sure enough, the smart rats outperformed the stupid ones from day one.

But both groups of rats were the same. The only difference—in a Theory X, Theory Y way—were the lab techs' expectations ("Expectations May Alter Outcomes," Wall Street Journal, 11/7/03).

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Tip #1: Pay attention to your expectations. They influence behavior, yours and others, more than you think.

#2: McGregor's point wasn't to be a Theory Y manager 24/7. Sometimes Theory X is justified.

#3: For lunch, California Pizza Kitchen makes an excellent tortilla soup. But hold the extra tortilla chips.

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Paul Hellman is the Founder of Express Potential. He is a consultant, speaker, author, and columnist, who has helped thousands of professionals improve their effectiveness at work.