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The power of positive expectation

Mon, 18th Jun 2012

You’ve seen it a hundred times – that mildly frustrating moment when a confused tourist, with poor English, gets on a London bus, tries to buy a ticket from the driver and after several minutes of miscomprehension and mounting irritation from other passengers, is ejected from the bus and has to start all over again.

Only this time the ending was different, because a Londoner in a front seat intervened. ‘Come on, love’, he said, producing his Oyster card and signing the tourist in. Then, blow me, the same thing happened again a few stops later. This time the would-be passenger was a harassed young father with a small child in a bulky pushchair, who had clearly mislaid his travelcard. Again, another passenger, this time a middle-aged woman, good-humouredly volunteered to pay the fare.

This set me thinking. The self-propelled steamroller of self-interest, the subject of last week's piece, is indeed large, heavy and relentless, moving forward with all the accumulated momentum of 30 years. But effective as it is, as those gratuitous trivial acts of neighbourliness demonstrate, it hasn’t succeeded in crushing altruistic, other-regarding behaviour out of our lives altogether.

As it happens, on the same day, without looking for them, I came across two other examples of what we might call self-interest denial. One, picked up from a tweet, was the case of a young woman athlete at a local meeting in the US who made headlines when, instead of overtaking a staggering rival in a distance event, she stopped to help her over the line. Neither was going to win, but still. 

Even more striking was an incident in a women’s baseball match, with a place in the next round of the competition at stake. In her last inning in her final competitive match, one player hit a first-ever home run, but in her exultation twisted her ankle so badly that she was unable even to get to first base. Consulted, the umpire confirmed that if her teammates helped her round the circuit, they would forfeit the match. Whereupon, to general astonishment, an opponent suggested that they should carry her. Which they did, touching the injured player’s foot on each base as they went. The benefactors ended by losing the match. But no one will remember that. What remained was the glow of the spontaneous act of generosity. Game, set and match to humanity.

I quote these small acts of kindness because in the market society we have become, they take on a symbolic value that is out of all proportion to their monetary, media or any other kind of importance. And they suggest an antidote to the pervasive pessimism of the self-interested view. 

The power of the self-fulfilling prophecy invests every one of these actions with the quality of resistance. It’s all too easy to convince yourself that individual beliefs don’t matter. But they do – in fact, in the world we inhabit today what we choose to believe about human nature may be the most important choice we ever make. Writ larger, the values that a company acts out in its relations with employees and customers may be ultimately more significant for the rest of us than what it chooses to make (although its products and services can of course reinforce the values by embodying them). 

In a world in which ideas triumph not by explaining the world but by changing it in their own image via their influence on others, every company that subscribes to a positive ‘Theory Y’ view of the workplace is striking a blow that may help it come true. Just as every manager who looks at the world through the lens of control and compliance will find reasons to confirm his belief, and by applying them bring that world nearer, the one who takes the employees’-eye view is not only taking the first step on the long road to the high-engagement, high-trust workplace that is not approachable along any other route, they are also making it more likely that others will take the same step too. ‘One good apple can infect all the rest,’ one cynical businessman warns another in Joseph Heller’s satire Catch-22.

There are many influential converts out there, ranging from Happy Computers, Henry Stewart’s IT training company, all the way up to John Lewis, and in one important sense the resounding failure of the current reductive business model should increase their attractiveness. The danger, of course, is that harassed, under-pressure managers will simply revert to the default behaviour that they know best and that is sanctioned by management’s authorised version.

To prevent this happening we need a concerted attempt to recentre our practices in a more realistic, less exclusively negative model of human nature. Only a minority of us are in a position to change the policies of a whole organisation in that direction. But all of us are aware of the power of expectation in our own upbringing, and now is the time to bring it to bear in our turn. Expecting the best of people and acting on it is not a soft and fluffy option, but the reverse. It’s becoming a matter of life and death – even if it’s just helping a tourist on a bus.


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User comments

Harry Longman :: 19th Jun 12
Just read Aung San Suu Kyi. "Even the briefest touch of kindness can lighten a heavy heart. Kindness can change the lives of people."
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