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The Surprising Power of the Unexpected

Question: Why would a lower performing employee get a better review from his boss than a better performer?

Answer: For the same reason that a three year old is unimpressed by an amazing magic trick.


Expectations are a bigger driver of the perception of success than actual results.

At the age of 3, a child has yet to form a complete understanding of how the world works. They see new and magical stuff every day - when a superhero on TV flies, it registers to their brain as “some people can fly.” Seeing David Copperfield fly on stage would not move the needle for a 3 year old. They expect it.

When they get older and understand gravity and weight and that people can’t really fly, their expectations change. A 6 year old sees a magician make a rabbit appear and it’s amazing! “How did that happen? I didn’t expect that!”

How we experience anything is completely dependent on our expectations of what is supposed to happen. And without those expectations, magicians would be out of work.

Expectation is also the reason a lower performing employee could get a better performance review. Let’s say Ann is normally able to produce an average of 4 widgets a day. One year she managed 5 widgets per day - a 25% increase. Her supervisor rates her as “exceeds expectations” and rewards her with a nice raise. Ann is happy. The boss is happy.

Bob, on the other hand, normally produces 6 widgets a day. He has a bad year where he only averaged 5 and he gets dinged on his review for underperforming. Same outcome (5 widgets) - different perception. Nobody is happy. Expectations were not met.

Many performance reviews are a comparison of how you performed against the reviewer’s expectations. The options are often “Meets expectations, Exceeds expectations, Fails to meet expectations.” That should clue us in that expectations are more important to the perception of success than objective results.

Expectations are based on 1) past knowledge, 2) the certainty of that knowledge. Then when something unexpected happens, the brain gets excited and gives it more attention as it tries to make sense of it. The experience of surprise activates the brain at a higher level.

How it helps

How is understanding the impact of expectations useful? I suppose you could lower someone’s expectations of you by performing below your abilities, but that is not a good strategy for reaching your potential. Purposely sabotaging your own work will not make you more successful, even though it may look that way when you ramp back up.

A better strategy is to perform at your best but to also look for ways to surprise in a positive way.

Defying expectations is also a good way to increase persuasion and engagement. As a speaker, I strive to provide insights that are not only accurate and useful, but are also surprising and novel. That makes the content more engaging and memorable.

In their book, Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath point out that if you have a message to convey, look for what is counterintuitive or unexpected about the message. A common sense message will “flow gently in one ear and out the other.” But a message that flies in the face of common sense will get remembered.

Your job when communicating something important is to make it memorable, and blowing up the expectations of your audience is a great way to make your message stick.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

Mind performance strategist

Want to learn more about improving your decision making and performance?

Click here for my free book, 7 Strategies for Making Better Decisions


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