When folks are brought together around some common task or set of tasks, their earliest experiences “set the tone” for the team. When team members develop the positive attitude that they can succeed, they are more likely to do so. Believing that they can succeed, they expect success. That expectation encourages additional effort (“We know we can win”), which makes success more likely (“See – I told you we could do this”), which encourages sustained effort, and so on. Setbacks are seen as just that — minor blips, short-term obstacles in an overall upward spiral of success. We know we can overcome them, and so we do.

A long history of research exists on how the power of expectations shapes outcomes. Many years ago a series of studies was done in which teachers were told that certain of their students were bright “fasttrackers” who would be expected to excel. At the end of the semester, the identified fast trackers did indeed outperform the other students. But in reality, the labels applied to individuals were randomly assigned by the researchers. At the outset, pupils labeled “bright” did not differ in aptitude from the others. But “somehow” the teachers’ expectations of success influenced their pupils’ learning in the expected direction.

Building team expectations

I have conducted and participated in various experiential team-building activities that clearly demonstrate the power of setting positive expectations. The common denominator: Two groups are put in separate locations, out of sight and hearing of each other, and are given a performance task. The task can be physical (lifting a weight, running at a fast clip, jumping as high as possible) or mental (doing math calculations, word-recognition tasks). Virtually any kind of activity that can be “scored” works.

Initially, with generic instructions to “do your best,” members of both groups individually perform in the presence of team members, and their first-round performance is individually scored. A team average is also calculated.

In the second round the two groups are given different instructions. Both are told that they are going to do the task again, but one group is given a distinctively positive spin, to create an expectation of improvement. They are told that, since they are now familiar with the task, they will probably do it a lot better — “as research has shown.” The first time was a warm-up; now they will surely improve over their first score. They may further be told to set a very specific improvement goal — say, two seconds faster, three inches higher, ten percent more accurate than before. They may be told to visualize themselves excelling, cheer each other on to higher levels of performance, and celebrate when team mates beat their round one score. Conditions for an upward spiral are set.

The other group is given a negative spin. They are told that a second round performance on this kind of task usually falls short of their initial effort, when they were fresh — “as research has shown.” They may be told: don’t be embarrassed by a drop off in performance — it is to be expected. Don’t make fun of teammates who find it so much harder to do it the second time, when fatigue and lowered concentration are in play. Conditions for a downward spiral are set.

Self-fulfilling directions

By now you probably anticipate the results of round two. And you’re right. The positive spin group outperforms the negative spin group, by a wide margin, even when the difficulty of the task is increased.

The positive spin group’s scores in round two almost always exceed their round one scores, again, even when task difficulty is increased. They are told they will do better. Expecting improvement, they get it. Seeing it in their teammates, individual performers know they can do it too. So the upward spiral takes off.

The negative spin group’s scores in round two are usually lower than their scores in round one. They were told they would do worse. Expecting a decrease, they get it. Individual team members, seeing it in others, expect it in themselves. They spiral downward.

Note carefully that the only difference at all between the two groups is the direction in which their expectation is manipulated — positive or negative. In every other way the two groups are treated identically.

Create the upward spiral

Successful safety professionals who make a positive difference are necessarily in the business of creating an upward spiral. But, the Positive Safety Culture, which is the framework for this column, is necessarily built on positive expectations. It is a product of the upward spiral. It can’t be otherwise.

Of course many factors contribute to success in safety: ability, training, motivation, commitment, support, tools and resources, etc. Hopes and dreams alone don’t do it, and expectations can’t be so wildly and unrealistically optimistic that they are dismissed out of hand.

The raw power of positive expectations is not to be underestimated. Abundant evidence shows that creating and celebrating early successes — “small wins” — is critical to the process of gradually turning a negative safety culture into a positive one.

Other things equal, or even close to equal, the upward spiral is the difference-maker.