Possibilities

Unlocking Your Potential

What could you do?

© iStockphoto/fotosipsak

I am afraid of spiders.

On a cognitive level, I know that they are harmless little creatures. But if I see a spider web in my basement, I am immediately on the alert for the dangerous intruder. And when I spot one of them, I am overcome by fear.

Because of this mild phobia, the word "spider" catches my attention whenever I see it in print. Such was the situation when, during the course of unrelated research, I learned that if we have a fear of spiders, we are more likely to notice them. This is exactly what happens in my household. I am always the one who discovers the lone spider in the basement, while others are oblivious to its peaceful existence.

If we are anxious about something, we are more likely to notice what we perceive as a threat than those who are relaxed. In other words, whatever we focus on, we see. This is a powerful concept with significant implications for both our personal and organizational lives. What we see is deeply influenced by what we expect.

Over the years, many scholars have worked on variations of this concept, such asThe Rosenthal Effect, also known as the Pygmalion Effect   (a psychological finding where a leader's high expectations of others causes high performance) and the obverse, the Set Up To Fail Syndrome (where low expectations of others causes low performance). While these concepts have to do with expectations we have of others, the Galatea Effect (named after the stone statue of the beautiful woman that the sculptor Pygmalion brought to life) is about expectations individuals have of themselves – it is, in effect, when high self-expectations become the catalyst for greater personal achievements. When that happens, we become our own positive self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is a significant factor in employee performance. A good leader who sets out to help employees to believe in themselves, in their ability to perform well, sets the stage for their possibility to succeed. The confidence that results from employees' high personal expectations in turn spurs them to higher achievement and productivity – their performance rises to the level of their own expectations.

Perhaps the scholar who has done the most work in this area is Stanford University's Dr Albert Bandura, who pioneered the concept of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is our belief in our ability to perform effectively. Bandura's theory is that individuals who have high self-efficacy expectations – that is, who believe that they can achieve what they set out to do – are healthier, more effective, and generally more successful than those with low self-efficacy expectations.

High self-efficacy determines many of the choices we make – the higher the self-efficacy, the more likely we are to seek new challenges and persist in the face of adversity or failure. High self-efficacy also influences the effort that we put into achievements. One might say that we are what we think we are.

This old adage is now scientifically proven. From the extensive brain research that is being conducted, we know that our brains are not hard wired. We know that the brain is plastic, and has the ability to reorganize itself every time we have new experiences. According to Dr John Kounios, Drexel University Medical School professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscientist, our neural connections change even after a 20-minute conversation! This gives new meaning to the positive impact that a conversation can have with a coach or mentor when it focuses on high expectations that we have of ourselves.

So, what are your thoughts about yourself, about your as-yet untapped potential? On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your self-efficacy? What expectations do you have of yourself? What do you want to attract in your professional and personal life? What do you want to be known for in your leadership?

I have posed these questions to a dozen or so highly successful professionals in the technical arena that I have had the good fortune of interacting with recently. Without fail, everyone mentioned high expectations about their future; and the majority, being at a mid-life point, is looking for deeper philosophical answers to the profound question: "What's next for me?" in planning the future.

One of the individuals directed me to a book that had a particular impact on him. The book's author is James O'Toole, (research professor in the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California and Mortimer J Adler Senior Fellow of the Aspen Institute) and is entitled Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle's Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness. The book takes us through the author's own search for a better life and explores, among other things, how do we resolve tensions between family and work commitments, how do we find meaning and fulfillment, and how do we create a good society within our own companies, even if we only have one person reporting to us: "If Aristotle is right that the good life depends on developing one's human potential, then providing the conditions in which employees can do so is a clear moral responsibility of leaders of work organizations. . . [Leaders who] deny employees the chance to develop their potential deny them the opportunity to develop their humanity."

If you decide to buy this book, be prepared to do some serious self-exploration on issues such as:

  • What does it mean to lead a good life?
  • To be happy, what should I be doing that I am not doing now? And what am I doing now that I should stop doing?
  • How can I create the opportunity to be happy for the people who work for me?
  • How should I begin to develop self-discipline, so that I can focus on what will make me happy in the long term?
  • What is personal excellence, and how do I achieve it?
  • How can I be a success in my specialized career, and, at the same time, a well-rounded person with a wide range of interests and knowledge?
  • To what extent does my personal happiness entail a relationship with the community of others?

To live one's life to its full potential, in accordance to the Aristotelian precepts, requires emotional and intellectual self-rigor. It also requires the ability to have high expectations of oneself, expectations that one would succeed at what might appear to be a lofty vision.

If the possibility of generating creative and fulfilling experiences that fill our hearts and minds does not seem real and feasible, then we need to question the underlying assumptions that get us to see what we see, and dispute these assumptions – acting as our own defense lawyer.

What are the higher steps you need to climb to unlock your full potential? What are the "buts" that you need to eliminate from your vocabulary in order to break through to new levels of personal achievement? What mindsets might you need to change to stay ahead of the curve? Charles M Schwab put it aptly: "None of us is born with a stop-valve on his powers or with a set limit to his capacities. There's no limit possible to the expansion of each one of us." As for me, I need to stop seeing spiders as objects of fear and stop to marvel, instead, at the wondrous creativity of their intricate silk webs.

Copyright © 2007-2014 by Bruna Martinuzzi. All Rights Reserved.

This article is adapted from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book: The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. Bruna is an educator, author, speaker and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd, a company which specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, Myers-Briggs and presentation skills training.

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Comments (4)
  • aussieghump wrote Over a month ago
    Further to Midgie's comments, SMART(ER) goal setting is important (http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/ ... 90.htm#Top) to ensure a gradual 'raising of levels'.

    Each task must be
    Specific
    Measurable
    Attainable
    Relevant
    Time Bound
    Ethical
    Responsible

    With respect to NLP and EQ, I use these techniques to evaluate myself, and my responses to situations, rather than to measure other people (although, of course, I do measure others!!).

    In my environment where I cannot learn things for myself (ie through reading, other sources) and in a country where 'Western-style common sense' does not apply to the people or their situation, I used to find myself very frustrated before stumbling across these techniques.
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi everyone,
    Indeed rapport and empathy does cross cultural boundaries and create connections with others. You do not have to be an NLP practitioner or an EQ expert to connect with people, be positive, see the good in situations and generally encourage others to be the best they can be.

    In regards to high expectations, we can, and do, indeed step up when the bar is raised. So let's all hold that bar high with ourself and with others and see what difference it makes!

    One caveat though ... raising the bar to raise potential is great. However, a danger for some might be that they raise is so high, and when they do not achieve the high standard, they use it to beat themselves up for 'not being good enough'. So, I try to remember to ask myself (and others), 'when is good good enough?'.

    M.
  • aussieghump wrote Over a month ago
    Hi everyone,

    I am by no means a NLP practitioner or an EQ expert, but I have found both of these techniques appear to be quite complimentary to each other and, if you are having trouble with understanding your own responses to situations, any investigations of these techniques might be helpful.

    I have especially found NLP very helpful in my situation where there are significant 'cultural' differences in how individuals interact between myself and my 'adopted' workmates, (I live and work in China, without speaking much of the language!)

    It is very interesting to me that 'rapport and empathy' can be built across langage boundaries (through a translator) by the way you approach your body language responses, eye contact and voice volume/tone reflections of your hosts.

    Certainly I have found these 'ideas' some of the most useful to me in my daily life.
  • dp7622 wrote Over a month ago
    [Leaders who] deny employees the chance to develop their potential deny them the opportunity to develop their humanity.

    Powerful words! In another post I just finished complaining about employees' fickle behavior and not ever seeming to satisfy them. Seeing the issue from this persepctive, developing our collective humanity, suddenly my complaints seem petty.

    Thanks Bruna and MindTools for this well needed kick in the you know what.

    Don

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