It is always startling to me, in a good way, when I have the same conversation in multiple parts of my life without seeing the parallel. It isn’t until I am processing them all that I realize, wait it’s the same issue. Today three seemingly unrelated conversations all came together around one word.
The first was a conversation with a friend about “special snowflakes” (aka Millennials) and their lack of self-sufficiency. We were debating whether this was the fault of the child or the parent.
The second was a dialog with my younger brother about society, culture and how do we fix the culture of a group if we agree it is broken.
The third conversation was about a friend’s horse and him trying to take advantage of his young rider. The rider bends to his will and gives in instead of standing up to the horse and persevering. The example was the horse not wanting to work. He pins his ears when he feels the saddle being cinched. Instead of pushing him through it the young rider feels bad for him, takes the saddle off and either doesn’t ride or rides bareback. Now the ears have become a learned behavior. He knows if he pins his ears with her she will let him out of what he doesn’t feel like doing. My friend is working with the rider to get her to be more “assertive” with him. The word stuck me a little off as we were discussing teaching children to understand how horses think.
One of the projects that has been on my mind a lot lately is putting together a client/workshop to teach people how to be better leaders. Whether they are parents, teachers, CEO’s or riders. I see a place for horses in this. It closely parallels my booklet (book in progress) “Saddling up to Leadership”. As I was mentioning this to the horse owner a lightening bolt hit me.
In all three conversations the answer is EXPECTATIONS!
Why can a child not do their own laundry? Because their parents never expected them to. How do we fix a broken culture? By raising our expectations on its members. Why does my horse walk next to me calmly and politely when other horses at the farm don’t? Because she knows she is expected to.
Let’s use the horse example. I will always remember a conversation I had with Jasmine’s trainer when I was buying her. I was amazed and impressed at how clean and easy she backed up in her sale video. I told him this and he looked at me and laughed. Once he finished laughing at me (I now know the laugh really meant “oh you have so much to learn” and I had earned that) he explained to me that her back was so good because she knew it wasn’t optional. She knew what was expected of her. That when he faced her and made even the smallest motion forward she was expected to already be moving backwards. She also knew that if she wasn’t meeting that expectation there would be consequences. In the case of teaching a horse to back that often means repeatedly backing them up over and over again. Horses learn when we “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard”. They are somewhat lazy and like to do as little as possible. So something that results in extra work is avoided. They quickly piece together “if I do what is expected of me I get done faster”. The same works with humans, we just forget to use that method most of the time.
So how do we set expectation? Expectation setting is a two way street. Expectations not only drive our own behavior, but also that of the people around us. There are four steps to setting an expectation.
- Define the expectation. This may be done just by one of the parties involved (I define what I expect of my horse) or it may be the result of a conversation or meeting (goal setting between an employee and their supervisor). The expectation should be clear, measurable and have a time frame. SMART goals work really well here.
- Teach to the expectation. This is where the person driving the expectation is most impacted and most critical. A parent who never expects their child to do laundry may never teach them how to sort clothes or use the washer. This step is often skipped and that always amazes me. How can we expect an outcome if we haven’t provided the information to reach it?
- Provide settings and opportunities for the expectation to occur and be reinforced. If I want my horse to walk right beside me on a loose lead I need to walk with her regularly. If she “forgets” the expectation I have to reinforce the training. It is also important not to sabotage the opportunities. What I mean by this is you need to fight that urge to do it instead. A parent who has told their child they are now expected to do their own laundry and every time the hamper is full steps in and does the wash is sending mixed signals and teaching that the expectation is not firm. Positive reinforcement is just as important. When Jasmine walks politely next to me, stops when I stop and meets my expectations I reward her. I put less pressure on her.
- Have a proactive plan for managing when the expectation isn’t met. This goes along with number 3 but is critical on its own. The key is proactivity. Waiting until the expectation isn’t met to know how to solve the problem is why so many people give up on trying to change another person’s behavior. When things are falling apart it is too late to figure out what to do. This is why the safety speech is given before the plane takes off and not when a crisis is happening. You need your plan already in your brain.
In processing all of this I realized why I found so much discomfort in the word “assertive”. Being assertive is a one way street. It puts all the responsibility, both for success and failure” on one side of the equation. Expectation however is a two sided contract. Both parties have a stake in the outcome, both parties have a role to play and both parties can be molded to the end goal.
Maybe I am starry eyed optimistic (ok any who knows me knows I’m not but go with that thought) but I believe that people and animals rise to the expectations set for them. As human beings it is our job to make sure the bar is kept high enough to keep each other reaching but never so high that it is unobtainable!