One Simple Trick to Bring Out the Best in People

How Leading with Positive Expectations Can Work for You

Winston Lord is a former ambassador to China who once wrote speeches for Henry Kissinger. Looking back, he said he couldn’t “recommend that to anybody.” Why? “You’d have to go through about 20 drafts and many insults before you got to the final speech.”

In one outrageous but true example, Lord took Kissinger a draft of a speech. Kissinger called him into his office the next day. “Is this the best you can do?” he asked. “Henry, I thought so,” Lord answered, “but I’ll try again.”

Next draft—same response. Back to drawing board again … and again … and again. The back-and-forth went on until the ninth draft, when Lord’s patience finally snapped.

“I really got exasperated,” he recalled years later. “I said, ‘Henry, I’ve beaten my brains out. This is the ninth draft. I know it’s the best I can do: I can’t possibly improve one more word.’

“He then looked at me and said, ‘In that case, now I’ll read it.’”

The Trouble with Low Expectations

Imagine if we’d done something like that when I was the CEO of Thomas Nelson! Most of our authors would have bolted and gone to publishers that actually read the first manuscript and worked with the writers to make it better.

Kissinger may be a brilliant man, but his expectations of his own people were far from where they should have been.

And his approach is ultimately counterproductive. When people know they’re going to have to jump through a circus full of flaming hoops no matter what they produce, after a while they’re not going to try to make the first version great.

What can leaders do instead?

Lead With the Positive

Positive expectations can help us at the office, in relationships, and in so many other areas of life.

Here is what St. Paul has to say about positive expectations in one of his letters to the Thessalonians: “And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, both that you do and will do the things we command you.”

Paul, like all effective leaders, understood that when we communicate positive expectations, people generally want to do what we expect. If we express confidence in them, they don’t want to let us down.

4 Ways to Leverage Positive Expectations

Thankfully, you can cultivate positive expectations—even if they don’t come naturally to you. I have four ways to make that happen. Implement these suggestions and you’ll be surprised how people respond.

  1. Believe the best about people. This may take a leap of faith, but it’s one that usually pays off. Don’t look for every flaw in people. Look for strengths, even hidden ones, that you can help build up.

  2. See them as bigger than they are. People usually think they’re less than they are. So you have to over-dial it just to get them to see what they are capable of. They sell themselves short. You need to see them as good, long-term investments instead.

  3. Make your thinking visible. Spell out your expectations when necessary. Tell them you expect them to do the best they can. When they fall short, you can draw them back to this vision of their best self.

  4. Assume others will do it better than you could. You may be very good at some things, but you’re not great at everything. Don’t let your competence in a few areas lead to the sort of arrogance that lets you dismisses the best efforts of others. They can do amazing things, with a little positive reinforcement.

We usually get what we expect from others, whether we communicate those expectations directly or indirectly. If we want to bring out the best in others, we must intentionally communicate the kind of expectations that will put them in the frame of mind to succeed.

Question: What expectations do you have for those you encounter throughout the day? How does it affect your relationships?

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