The self-fulfilling prophecy describes how our expectations of others can lead them to act in a way that confirms those expectations. As leaders it’s time to reset our expectations so we can get the best out of our people and stop holding them back.
Hello and welcome to episode 26 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we’re looking at self-fulfilling prophecies, and why we get what we expect.
It’s a sunny Wednesday in 1932 as the CEO of Last National Bank walks towards his desk. The bank is thriving and financially strong, and Cartright Millingville is rightly proud of the business he oversees. But as he continues past the tellers, he notices the queue of people lining up is much longer than usual - nothing to worry about at this point, but certainly different to most Wednesday mornings. As he takes a seat at this desk the noise and activity in the bank gradually grows, with people becoming increasingly unruly. And that’s because this is no ordinary day - hundreds of people are lining up to withdraw all of their funds from the bank, having heard a rumour of the bank’s imminent collapse. Despite the bank’s strong financial position, it could not survive the initially false, but ultimately true, perception that it might be at risk. The bank collapsed and closed its doors permanently the same day. The false perception became fact.
The sociologist Robert Merton shares this example in his classic 1948 paper - The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. In the paper he describes how our expectations can influence the world around us. Thinking that a financial institution is at risk of collapse can ultimately lead to its collapse. In the same way, our expectations of others can lead them to behave in line with these expectations. Merton defines the self-fulfilling prophecy as “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the originally false conception come true.” And, of course, this outcome strengthens the original perception of the situation, as Merton continues “for the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning”.
A common example of a self-fulfilling prophecy is the placebo effect. In drug trials, prospective new medications are put up against placebo pills. These placebo pills have no direct physical impact on the individual. But believing that a placebo tablet will have an impact is often enough for it to actually have that impact. For that reason, finding drugs that work better than placebos can be difficult. It’s not that a placebo is neutral - the expectation the person has of the placebo tablet actually makes that outcome more likely. More recent research demonstrates that the placebo effect is so strong, it can still work even when the person knows that they’re taking a placebo. By way of example, Dr Ted Kaptchuk treated patients with irritable bowel syndrome by giving them a tablet openly identified to the patient as a placebo. This group demonstrated significant improvement in their symptoms compared to a group that didn’t receive a placebo. As Dr Kaptchuck notes, this clearly can’t work for all medical issues. However he sees the greatest potential for so called ‘open-label’ placebo treatments in conditions that are largely measured through self-observation - conditions including pain, nausea and fatigue. Placebo tablets and treatments are a great example of the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Classic experiments in schools have also shown the impact of the self-fulfilling prophecy. In the 1960s, Rosenthal and Jacobsen undertook a series of experiments with teachers and students. In one experiment, they chose a group of students at random and told teachers that those children had taken a test which showed they were “growth spurters” - that they had high potential and were likely to experience great progress in the year to come. The children weren’t aware of this finding - only the teachers knew. But the group was actually not special - they hadn’t taken a test and had no reason to advance more quickly than their peers. At the end of the year the evidence was in - the students identified as “growth spurters” to the teachers demonstrated significantly greater improvement across the year than their peers. Believing a student had greater potential led them to demonstrate greater potential. This research has been replicated many times and while some more recent research has questioned the size of the effect, the effect is still there.
So how does this work? It’s believed teachers’ expectations impact the way they treat their students and this, in turn, changes the behaviour of the students, helping them to reach those expectations. If I think a student has high potential, I’ll treat them differently, by giving them more opportunities to develop and demonstrate this potential.
Research has found this same effect alive and well in our organisations too, where supervisor expectations can modify performance. Which raises another point - having low expectations can also lead people to reduced performance.
As a leader, findings like these should make us pause and think: What expectations do I have of my people? What evidence do I have for these expectations? Are my expectations limiting the performance and potential of my people?
What if we wiped the slate clean as leaders and expected more out of our people? What impact might that have?
What if we expect that people turn up to work wanting to do a good job. That people can and want to develop and improve. That if the conditions are right, people can deliver even more than what we expect of them.
While we’re at it, what expectations do we have of ourselves? Are there limiting beliefs you have about yourself that lead people to treat you differently? Perhaps you don’t expect to get a promotion, and this leads others to see you as less worthy of a promotion. Perhaps you joke about being lazy, which leads others to see you as lazy. You might take some time this week to consider your strengths. One way to do this is to take a survey like the VIA Character Strengths which can help identify your unique strengths. Embracing your strengths will help you to present more confidently to others, and change the way they view you in line with the expectations you place on yourself.
Let me know how you go, and have a great week.
The Self-Fulfilling ProphecyAuthor(s): Robert K. MertonSource: The Antioch Review, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Summer, 1948), pp. 193-210
Eden, D. (1984). Self-fulfilling prophecy as a management tool: Harnessing Pygmalion. The Academy of Management Review, 9(1), 64-73.
VIA Character Strengths Survey - available free - www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey