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A self-fulfilling prophecy may be the difference between success and failure

Leaders and employees' self-fulfilling prophecies could be a determining factor in how a business coped during lockdown and how they will go forward during potential continued uncertainty and instability. This is because our beliefs influence our behaviour and actions.

A self-fulfilling prophecy was first coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton in 1948 and is best described as belief or expectation (which we might not be consciously aware of) that is capable of influencing whether it happens or not through our subsequent actions.  A self-fulfilling prophecy can be positive and negative.  If you think for example that you won’t be able to achieve an objective, you may well inadvertently sabotage it. If you are highly motivated and confident in your abilities, you are far more likely to ensure you fulfil your goal.

The Pygmalion effect occurs when other people's expectations of us also have an impact on our behaviour, feelings and thoughts. A famous experiment conducted in 1968 by psychologist Robert Rosenthal in relation to teachers and students illustrates this well.

After an IQ test was given to the students, the teacher was told that group of students were gifted and special when they had been randomly selected. After eight months the ‘gifted’ students showed a significant increase in their IQ over the others because the teacher’s attitude was different towards them including giving them extra help, smiling more and encouraging questions which led them to work harder and get better results.  The same of course is seen time and time again in the workplace.

Leaders may have preconceived notions about some of their workers; perhaps some are seen as more promising, and others are viewed as being lazy. They may then show their bias by consciously or unconsciously treating them differently, such as investing less time in them or providing less opportunities.  Those employees may then view themselves as the management does, meaning the promising ones thrive whilst the others see themselves as inferior and their beliefs and behaviour are altered.

The Golem effect occurs when leaders project low expectations onto an employee often leading to reduced motivation, self-esteem and performance from those employees.  

What we need to know about sulf-fulfilling prophecies at work

  1. It is important to note that that while high expectations from managers can be useful, each of us has a tipping balance when too much pressure or expectation is counter-effective and has negative effects on confidence and motivation.


  1. High expectations do not alone ensure improved performance and employee motivation. Good leadership, positive feedback, trust and clear communication are as important, if not more so. Employees themselves need to be self-confident and positive and much is dependent on an individual’s willingness to achieve and improve themselves.


  1. There can be a snowball effect with self-fulfilling prophecy in that performance increases as each goal is attained so it is best for a business or an individual to set a series of goals which can be successfully met one by one.


  1. Open mindedness also increases the number of ideas and perspectives available to you, expands your ability to solve problems and increases your chances of achieving your goals. Being open minded can be developed by learning new things, being inquisitive and hearing different opinions and experiences to your own and embracing new opportunities.


  1. Resilience and over-coming fears are important and things don’t always go according to plan, but we can learn from failures and successes and can be ‘character-building’ and affect our self-fulfilling prophecy. Replace negative perceptions and language with optimistic and positive descriptions of yourself to start as you mean to go on.


  1. Facilitating opportunities, motivating employees and giving positive feedback are just some ways to alter an individual’s beliefs about themselves to help improve self esteem, which in turn may well increase productivity and benefit the business as a whole, as well as the individual.

Lynda Shaw is a neuroscientist and business psychologist