Identifying and Avoiding Negative Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Leadership
What are self-fulfilling prophecies?
Self-fulfilling prophecies are predictions that come true due to the actions taken in response to them. They are rooted in the beliefs we hold about ourselves, the people around us and the world. Beliefs can be from anywhere, imprinted on us at a young age and onwards - via our friends, parents advertising and the list goes on.
For example, when a bank is rumoured to be insolvent, customers may rush to withdraw their money in fear of losing it. This sudden demand for withdrawal can cause the bank to become insolvent, as they are unable to meet all of the requests in such a short time frame.
Self-fulfilling prophecies can also be positive, such as when a leader believes their team is highly capable and provides them with everything they need. The team then rises to meet the expectations and performs exceptionally well, given extra opportunities, resources and support.
Self-fulfilling prophecies are a powerful force in our lives, whether they are positive or negative. As a leader, it is important to be aware of the potential for them to occur, so that you can avoid creating negative ones and instead focus on setting your team up for success. Avoiding negative self-fulfilling prophecies starts with understanding our own biases and those of the people around us. We need to be aware of the potential for negative self-fulfilling prophecies and take steps to avoid them while cultivating positive ones to help us succeed.
How do self-fulfilling prophecies affect leaders and their organizations?
People rise and fall to your expectations. As a leader, it's important to drive positive self-fulfilling prophecies while reducing or even eliminating negative ones.
Self-fulfilling prophecies can affect leaders and their organizations in a variety of ways, such as:
If a leader believes that their team is capable, they will work to ensure that the team has the resources needed to be successful while speaking well of the team's abilities to others, who in turn believe in it. The team will also be more likely to believe in their ability and work hard to achieve success. On the flip side, leaders may have preconceived notions about some of their workers, such as viewing some as more promising and others as lazy. This can lead to bias towards these workers, treating them differently and providing unequal levels of opportunities. With negative confirmation bias, people will always conform towards a bias no matter how good or competent they are.
This means that the 'promising' ones thrive while the others see themselves as inferior and alter their beliefs and behaviour accordingly - leading to reduced motivation, decreased self-esteem and diminished performance. Conversely, those with positive confirmation bias would be more uplifted and have more motivation and opportunities to succeed.
Furthermore, it's not just a leader's perception of teams that can affect performance. Two things impact performance: beliefs about yourself, and others' beliefs about you. If a leader places more value on others' beliefs about them than the beliefs they hold about themselves, it puts the leader at risk of becoming an emotional slave to other people's whims. Self-fulfilling prophecies affect leaders just as much as organizations - based on how they view themselves and how much they weigh their self-beliefs against the opinions of others.
If a leader holds self-limiting beliefs about themselves, then they may slowly come true as they undertake actions and decisions that reflect these beliefs, eventually leading to worsened performance or even losses. If they let others' negative biases against them influence the decisions they make, the outcome would also be similar. Therefore, a leader needs to hold positive beliefs about themselves and their teams.
Another example is when an individual is told they are not suited to a role or task. If they believe this, they may start to act in ways that confirm this belief, such as not trying as hard or not taking on new challenges. As a result, they may end up not being suited to the role or task after all. This eventually leads to discouraged individuals who then leave, when in the first place they may have had the potential and ability to excel in the organization.
However, if employees are told that they are valued and that their skills are needed, they will likely work harder to meet these expectations. As a result, the company benefits from having a more engaged and productive workforce.
Steps to identify and avoid negative self-fulfilling prophecies as a leader
1. Recognize when a negative self-fulfilling prophecy is taking place
Identify the possible self-fulfilling prophecies within yourself and the team: Consider the assumptions you may have made about your team members, such as “she wouldn’t want to do this” or “he’s not good enough for that”. Then analyze how these beliefs are influencing your actions towards them: Are you giving them less trust and autonomy than they deserve? Are you investing less time in them than others? Are they feeling inferior compared to other workers?
A lot of things we think are the truth - aren't the truth. They are simply beliefs, not necessarily rooted in logic. All of us possess confirmation and unconscious bias, which we seek to make correct.
2. Take steps to remove the prophecy and replace it with a more positive one
Since self-fulfilling prophecies spring from beliefs, it's important to reframe negative perceptions, connotations and language to prevent negative self-fulfilling prophecies from happening. Use positive language instead of negative ones when encouraging employees or giving feedback on performance objectives, or even on yourself.
One way to remove self-fulfilling prophecies is to soften the resistance of going against your beliefs by modifying language. For example, instead of thinking "I can never learn how to swim", modify it to:
"I think I can't swim, but I could probably do it if I wanted to, or if I put in effort."
This modification gives one some hope while softening the effect of a negative belief. From there, things are likely to change for the better.
Ways to prevent self-fulfilling prophecies from happening again in the future
Review your beliefs
Reviewing your beliefs can help prevent negative self-fulfilling prophecies by helping you to identify and change any negative perceptions, connotations, and language associated with them. By doing this, you can replace negative expectations with positive ones that are more likely to lead to a positive outcome. Additionally, reviewing your beliefs can help build resilience so that when setbacks occur you are better equipped to handle them with confidence in yourself and your goals.
Identify and understand the causes
It’s important to be aware of one's beliefs and to question them regularly. When leading others, it’s especially important to be open-minded and consider all points of view. Additionally, leaders should avoid making assumptions about others and instead focus on understanding them. Self-reflection is paramount to effective leadership.
Take a step back and think rationally
Taking a step back and thinking rationally can help prevent negative self-fulfilling prophecies from happening again in the future. Obtaining feedback from others can also help to identify any possible negative self-fulfilling prophecies that may be occurring.
What do you mean by self-fulfilling prophecy?
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief or expectation that is powerful enough to influence whether an event happens or not through our subsequent actions based on those beliefs and/or expectations.
How can leaders identify self-fulfilling prophecies in the workplace?
There are a few ways that leaders can identify self-fulfilling prophecies in the workplace.
Firstly, self-fulfilling prophecies tend to be based on stereotypes and preconceptions. If you find yourself making assumptions about someone based on their gender, race, or other factors, it's important to check yourself and make sure that you're not falling into the trap of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another way to identify a self-fulfilling prophecy is to look at whether or not your expectations are realistic. If you're expecting someone to fail, you'll likely find ways to make that happen.
Finally, self-fulfilling prophecies can be identified by their impact. If your expectations are hurting someone's performance, they're likely self-fulfilling.
What behaviour can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies?
Self-fulfilling prophecies are rooted in the beliefs we hold about ourselves, others and the world. Therefore, the nature of one's beliefs shapes their self-fulfilling prophecies greatly. A person who holds negative beliefs like "I am not competent" or "Nobody likes me" is more likely to experience negative self-fulfilling prophecies. On the other hand, someone who believes they are competent and likeable is more likely to experience positive self-fulfilling prophecies.
What is a good example of a self-fulfilling prophecy?
One example would be how teachers' expectations of students can affect their performance. If they believe a student has high potential and will outperform the rest by the end of the year, they may pay more attention and provide more guidance which improves that student's performance compared with other students who aren't receiving this special treatment. These actions taken in response to these predictions ultimately make them come true.
Let us help you replace negative with positive.
Now that you've read about the power of self-fulfilling prophecies, it's up to you to decide what kind of beliefs you'd like to hold about yourself and others to reach the vision you have for your organization. At Coaching Go Where we make it our mission to help you and your organization succeed - contact us here today to get started!