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Opinion: Underachievers crave expectations

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Walking into a seminar recently, I overheard a woman say, “Oh, but even if our salesmen don’t make the quota, we give them a bonus anyway. After all, they tried. And if we don’t give them the bonus, their morale goes down. And how can you expect a salesman to sell if his morale is low? You got to keep the sales team fired up!”

I grabbed this woman by the hair and swung her around, her neck twisting like pulled taffy. Not really.

I did ask, “You give every salesperson a bonus – no matter how much they sell?”
“Well, yes. It just seems more fair that way.”


Did you ever see the movie “Stand and Deliver”? This low-budget, 1988 film is based on the true story of a Los Angeles high school teacher named Jimmy Escalante. Mr. Escalante quits his lucrative day job in the computer industry to teach high school math. His students are a tough bunch and not much into the subject.

In fact, the students aren’t into school at all. The high school is in danger of losing its accreditation due to poor test scores. One well-meaning teacher suggests that the reason the kids don’t score well on the tests is that the kids are poor. How can you expect them to do as well on tests, and in life, as the 90210 kids?

Mr. Escalante pulls out all the stops as a teacher. He teaches the kids to sing and dance the rules of calculus, assigns the too-few chairs in his classroom to the kids who participate and do their homework and makes the others stand in the back of the room. He fuels a burning desire to learn. Good stuff! When the AP tests roll around, his students ace the test. All 18 kids pass with flying colors.

So what happens? The kids are accused of cheating. They do well, they pass the college level test, and they are thumped. They have to retake the exam to demonstrate to those in authority that a bunch of poor, minority kids from L.A. can actually learn calculus.

The kids who didn’t take the test or sign up for calculus weren’t accused of anything. They were expected to be underachievers, and they were. They could point to the calculus kids and call them cheaters.

This was a classic case of thumping the achiever and rewarding the underachiever.

“Stand and Deliver” has a happy ending. The kids take the test again, and they all pass with high scores. They hold their heads up and demand recognition for their win. They demonstrate to other kids that it is OK to be smart and to do well. In 1982, 18 kids in Mr. Escalante’s class passed the AP exam. In 1987, the year the film was produced, 87 students took and passed the AP calculus exam.

The story makes a couple very powerful points.
• People rise to the level of expectation. Study after study has proven that if you expect greatness, you will probably get it. What do you expect of yourself? Your children? Your employees?
• Acknowledge and reward the winners, and they will win some more. Each person has the seeds of greatness. There are outstanding people who overcome all obstacles to succeed.

These folks will make good no matter the odds. Others need to be encouraged to succeed.

They need to taste the reward to learn how fun it can be to score the points, pass the test, make the sale. And they need to understand the consequences of not scoring, passing or selling.

Reward production, and you’ll see a lot more of it. Reward those who stand and deliver.

Ellen Rohr is an author and business consultant who offers systems for getting focused and organized, making money and having fun in business. Her latest book is “The Bare Bones Biz Plan.” She can be reached at
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