Managers often predict the performance of their staff with precision and accuracy. Employees can tell you exactly how their coworkers, bosses, and customers will act in certain situations. This doesn’t mean they have psychic abilities. Instead they may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to The Law of Self-fulfilling Prophecy, people respond the way you expect them to respond. You then get what you expect…
There are two types of self-fulfilling prophecies. The first is the “Pygmalion Effect.” You have expectations about someone. You then treat them according to your expectations of them. How you treat them causes them to act according to your expectations. Lo and behold! You discover that you were right all along.
The second type of self-fulfilling prophecy is where people change their behavior to agree with a prophecy. For example, investors expect the stock market to go down so they stop investing or they sell their stock. Their actions cause the market to drop. By acting on their expectations, the investors created what they expected.
We live in an information culture and as a society we crave more and more facts. The “catch-22,” however, is that the information we regularly receive is not always the whole truth. Newspapers, radio stations, broadcast networks, etc. are in business to make money. The simple fact is that Positive “touchy feeley” stories do not sell long-term. “Shock and Awe” stories grab the audience. Who hasn’t heard the news about holiday shopping predicted to be lower in 2008 than ever, the economy is falling into the worse recession than the Great Depression, unemployment is growing at record numbers? What I find interesting is that I can recall stories in major publications about holiday sales forecast to be low back in September.
Holiday sales were indeed down, but why is that? Stores are selling virtually everything in their inventory at deeply discounted prices and the majority of Americans are employed making the same or more than they did in 2007. Home prices and interest rates are at the lowest in recent memory, yet people are not buying or refinancing. The reason is because we are subconsciously reacting to the negative information and changing our behavior accordingly.
Self-fulfilling prophecies are cyclical. We form expectations. We communicate those expectations either explicitly or indirectly. People then adjust their behavior in response to how we treat them and consequently match our expectations. The original expectations become true. This reinforces our original expectations.
We all see examples of self-fulfilling prophecies in our daily lives. For example, when we go to a restaurant expecting bad service we send nonverbal signals to the server that makes them wish they weren’t serving your table and sure enough you get bad service. What are we thinking when we are standing in line at the Department of Transportation waiting to renew our license plates?
The self-fulfilling prophecy works with our own behavior and with others. People who expect to be successful are more likely to succeed. People who expect to fail are more likely to fail. We live up to our expectations in either case.
Here are some interesting things to note about self-fulfilling prophecies.
- A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs despite the truth or falsity of the prophecy. For example, a salesperson thinks that they have sold out their sales territory. Therefore they don’t do the things that help generate sales. As they expected, they don’t sell anything. Along comes a new salesperson who doesn’t know that other sales people have sold out their sales territory, and they set record sales.
- There is plenty of experimental evidence that proves the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon. For example, experiments have shown that teachers who believe that their students are top performers get top performance out of their students. Conversely, teachers who believe that their students are poor performers get poor performance from their students. Students live up to the expectations of their teachers.
- Forming expectations is a natural process and is unavoidable. You will form expectations and act based upon those expectations. Other people will respond to how you act. The problem is that we usually don’t realize that we are influencing other people’s behavior to match our expectations.
- Expectations about ourselves tend to be self-sustaining and self-reinforcing. Because of our expectations, we filter and select information that supports our expectations.
- We are more comfortable with people who match our expectations than with people who do not meet our expectations—regardless of whether our expectations are high or low. We are more comfortable when we believe we can predict other people’s behavior.
- A manager or supervisor’s expectations about their employee’s performance affect the employee’s performance. This is particularly true with performance evaluations. Performance evaluations not only appraise past performance but influence and shape future performance.
- Self-fulfilling prophecies affect stereotypes and may reinforce stereotypical behavior. Because you stereotype someone, you treat them consistent with your stereotype. Consequently, they respond consistently with how you treat them. Their response confirms your belief in the truthfulness of the stereotype. Self-fulfilling prophecies affect our beliefs about racial and ethnic groups, gender differences, aging, health, and generational differences.
Let’s set our goals for 2009 right now. Let’s all agree to make this the best year ever and that regardless of what happens around us we will only focus on the positive.
Happy New Year!