The power of beliefs

Liz Stanley

Last week I read a book that simultaneously amazed and reassured me. It reassured me because it confirms a major foundation of our work on culture change – that the outcomes we experience are strongly shaped by our beliefs and expectations. And it also amazed me because of the breadth of fascinating scientific evidence to back up that assertion. 

David Robson’s The Expectation Effect is not about Pollyanna-like positive thinking of the ‘think yourself successful/happy/fulfilled’ genre, but rather of decades of credible scientific studies showing that what we believe and expect to happen in any given situation has a strong impact on what actually happens. 

I can’t do justice to that evidence here, but it’s utterly compelling, from the amazing strength of the placebo effect, to explaining a spate of sudden and unexpected deaths in a community of Laotian immigrants, to repeated consumer studies showing performance is directly impacted by beliefs. For example, in a simple eye test, participants were asked to put on a pair of sunglasses and read words under the glare of a bright light. Those who were told they were wearing Ray Bans were twice as accurate and almost twice as fast as those who were told they were wearing a mid-market brand. In fact, all participants were wearing the same sunglasses. But the belief of some that the higher-quality product would help them to see better actually helped them to see better.  

What all of this scientific evidence shows is, our expectations and beliefs strongly shape our behaviour and the outcomes we experience. At Walking the Talk, we work with clients to help them understand the specific causal chains in their cultures.  We find that at both individual and organisational levels, whilst the behaviour-outcome links are often pretty clear, the link with beliefs is much more opaque.  At an organisational level we uncover the shared beliefs driving the culture, through a rich qualitative diagnostic and thematic content analysis.  And our expert advisory sessions help individual leaders identify and reframe limiting beliefs that are inhibiting their growth and development.  It is an amazingly powerful process that many of them tell us has been career and sometimes life-changing.  After reading all the wonderful data in Robson’s book, I’m no longer surprised by that. 

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