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Transform your expectations

April 01, 2009

Last month we talked about how tough things are these days. We talked about this being a time for heroes to step forward and for focusing on thriving instead of just surviving. We encouraged you to put forth your best efforts, to use this “downtime” to dream new dreams, to come up with new ideas that could spawn great recovery-based services. Our goal was to challenge all of us to meet these tough challenges with as much creativity and brilliance as possible. We were thinking about the amazing impact we could have if we do what we encourage those who use our services to do: turn challenges into opportunities to learn, grow, and develop innovative problem-solving approaches.

This month we are taking this concept a step further because if we role-model this way of approaching problems, we will have firsthand knowledge to share with those who use our services. It's a tall order, certainly neither for the faint of heart nor the cynical. Yet this approach could have a system-wide effect on all organizational levels as well as our customer base. In fact, think of this as a psychological “stimulus” package that could result in a big payoff and be at least revenue neutral!

So how can we kick this concept into action? We think one of the first and most important prerequisites has to do with expectations. Given our current economic situation, it certainly would be tempting to lower our expectations of ourselves, our staff, and those who use our services, but this is the opposite of what we need to do.

A lot of research has been done on the effect of expectations, particularly related to education, leadership, and organizational development. So we aren't just making this up: It has been proven that our expectations have a powerful effect on our performance and outcomes. For example, in 1968 teacher Jane Elliott divided her classroom into two groups: students with blue eyes and those with brown eyes. She told one group that they were exceptional and the other that they were failures. She treated them accordingly, and the students modeled the qualities they were labeled with. Later she switched the groups, telling them they were the opposite, and once again the students succeeded or failed based on how they were labeled.

Another example: In the “Pygmalion effect,” people perform in ways consistent with others' expectations. People excel when expectations are high and when they are given the message that they are capable of success and expected to succeed. The “Galatea effect” notes that if people have high expectations of themselves, they likely will perform at a much higher level than if they have low expectations.

Thus, behavioral healthcare leaders clearly should have high expectations to help staff and service users believe in themselves and to bring forward their best contributions. We believe this will counterbalance some of the shortfalls related to the current tough times. After all, if we couple high expectations with role-modeling a positive, powerful problem-solving approach, we'll have a much better chance of coming out of this “depressing state” ready to establish even stronger recovery services.

If this is such a good idea, why aren't we just doing it? Some are, but in general we see a lot of hopelessness, hand-wringing, low expectations, and fear coming from many leaders. Rather than blame them, it's time to support them so they will have the courage to use these tough times to break through to a new level of thinking, creating, and investing in better outcomes.

As we've pointed out before, we're a sentimental bunch. We have a tendency to hold onto old ideas whether they work well or not. It's basic human nature to resist change, so we change as few things as possible. So perhaps the only good part about the economic crisis is that it could push us out of our ruts and cause us to break through to avoid breaking down. A breakdown often precedes a breakthrough, so if you're in the middle of a breakdown, keep moving ahead and keep your expectations high. To quote AA's Big Book, “Don't give up before the miracle happens.”

Lori Ashcraft, PhD, directs the Recovery Opportunity Center at Recovery Innovations, Inc., in Phoenix. She is also a member of Behavioral Healthcare's Editorial Board.
William A. Anthony, PhD, is Director of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University.

To contact the authors, e-mail

Behavioral Healthcare 2009 April;29(4):12-13

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