09 Jun 2016 21:29 IST

The power of belief

In many cases, beliefs can either make or break you as a person

In 1968, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson designed and administered an intelligence test on a class of primary school children at Oak School (a pseudonym) in San Francisco. They told the teachers that the test would achieve two objectives. One, it would measure the IQ of the children. And two, it would predict 20 per cent of students who would, irrespective of their current IQ or performance, make the most progress in the upcoming year. After the test, teachers were handed over the list that predicted which students would improve the most in their classes.

At the end of the year, the intelligence test was repeated and unsurprisingly, the 20 per cent from the predicted group improved the most. On an average, they showed an increase of 12 IQ points; that is, the children had become more intelligent, when compared with eight points for some of the other children. So the improvement was 50 per cent better than the rest of the class.

But here’s the twist — the researchers, in fact, had not used any test results to predict the top performers, but randomly selected names to make the list!

The label they were given — of improving the most in the class — proved the most important driver of change. The children, understandably, did not know the methods used or the results declared. All other variables had remained unchanged.

What mattered was the teacher’s belief in the 20 per cent that changed their performance. Teachers treated students in that category differently, and the students responded.

This came to be known as the Rosenthal experiment. It is an illuminating lesson for all educators but for aspiring leaders, it is a life-changing lesson in the power of belief.

Beliefs drive behaviour

“What are some ways I can apply this to myself? What are my core-beliefs?”

The clue to answering these questions lies in asking yourself, “What am I prepared to stand for, even when I have to pay a price for it?”

The epitaph on my grandfather’s gravestone (penned by my father) sums up his life in six words — ‘He gave even when it hurt’. So giving was not a convenience belief for him. It was a commitment belief. He was prepared to pay the price for standing by it. As Martin Luther King put it, “If you haven’t found something you are willing to die for, you aren’t fit to live.”

In my first job, I worked for a Tata company. I remember some of our machines being wrongly seized by a Government department. A person suggested to the CFO that rather than go through the bureaucratic rigmarole of proving we were in the right, the expedient thing would be to pay a bribe and get back the machines immediately. Otherwise, production would suffer.

But the CFO did not hesitate when he firmly said, “We will not pay a bribe”. It was a lesson in standing up for core beliefs, whatever the cost.

Cherished ideals

What are the beliefs that I want to cherish as my life-principles?

Perhaps it is a commitment to excellence, perhaps it is integrity. Maybe it is making and keeping commitments, or doing the right thing by customers. This is a searching question to ask. It will define not just the impact you make, but also your personal sense of fulfilment, happiness and meaning. In fact, it defines you.

What are the behaviours I want or need to change in myself as a leader?

Start off by not wasting your time in hammering your behaviour into a desired shape. Begin with your beliefs. Ask yourself — “Can I look at some of the behaviours I want to change and ask what beliefs are behind them? Do I have a habit of exaggerating my accomplishments? Does this stem from a belief of personal insecurity and low self-esteem? Do I have a habit of trampling on classmates or colleagues in my quest for personal success? Does this spring from a belief that for me to win, others must lose?”

The earlier you create the right beliefs and amend the wrong ones, the better your chances will be of creating the right behaviour through your career.

Flying right

Vijay Mallya believed that it was justified to use public money borrowed from banks to fund and run his businesses. As Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson put it, when asked about the best way to become a millionaire: “Start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline”.

Mallya’s behaviour of lavish personal spending while professionally failing to pay his employees their salaries or banks the debts he owed them, stemmed from the belief that he could get away with such bravado; that he had every right to live life king-size, doesn’t matter if he reduced others to penury. His behaviour is driven by erroneous beliefs — almost too late to change.

A must-ask question

If you’re beginning the journey of your career, then this is a must-ask question. To answer that, we must learn to use both microscope and telescope. What we do today about our beliefs should be guided not only by today’s necessities but also by the kind of life and career we would be proud of tomorrow.

Clayton Christensen’s Harvard Business Review article How Will You Measure Your Life? should be required reading for all students who are at the cusp of building their careers. He closes his article with a great ‘telescope’ insight, that should help answer the questions posed in this column.

“I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched. I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”

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