Ever heard people say these things in the workplace?
“He wouldn’t be able to handle that.”
“She isn’t the right person.”
“He can’t take on that level of responsibility.”
“She’s doesn’t have the right personality to lead a team.”
I have. They involve assumptions, and nobody says them directly to the person they are speaking about. These words are the beginning of a self fulfilling prophecy.
A self fulfilling prophecy starts from opinions that people create. If I believe people in my team are useless, then I start to treat them that way. Eventually, they fail and my self fulfilling prophecy has come true.
So I say “I told you so”, to anybody who will listen. I was right – they weren’t good enough to do the job. Or were they?
An example of how a self fulfilling prophecy works
Kelly decides that Nick should lead a small project. Kelly is nervous, because she doesn’t think Nick is up to the job. But she doesn’t see too many other options. She can’t take it on herself as she’s too busy.
She assigns Nick the project and makes it clear that he is accountable for what happens. Nick seems keen enough to take the opportunity. Kelly is still a little nervous, as she doesn’t see Nick as much of a go-getter. Each week she meets with Nick to get an update on how the project is going.
At the weekly meeting, Kelly asks a lot of questions. Why haven’t you done this? Why didn’t you do that? Have you spoken to Bob yet? You need to be talking to Bob right now!
Because Kelly believes that Nick isn’t up to it, she focuses on the signs that things are going wrong. She convinces herself that there is a problem and that she was right. Nick senses this. He can tell that Kelly is looking at every move he makes with the project. Not surprisingly, Nick starts to get stressed.
Nick begins to think, “I thought things were going OK, but I must be doing a terrible job if Kelly is watching me so closely!”
Before long, Nick’s performance begins to suffer, because he loses confidence. Nick starts to second-guess himself and takes longer to make decisions. He doesn’t think that Kelly believes in him. Nick starts to take a back seat and lets Kelly run the show, because he thinks he’s doing a bad job.
After the project, Kelly is even more convinced that Nick isn’t any good. She believes this more than ever, making it very difficult to change.
Stop assuming people are useless, start offering them opportunities
This isn’t magic. You can’t convince yourself into thinking that things are fine when they aren’t. Believing something doesn’t make it true. A self fulfilling prophecy only happens because what you believe makes you treat the world differently. Then the world responds back to you in the same way.
If you start believing that your team member will be successful, you will treat them that way. You will demonstrate trust, and start to give them autonomy. This trust may even be rewarded with greater motivation, because your team member doesn’t want to let you down.
There are far too many assumptions made in our workplaces. Assumptions like “she wouldn’t want to do this” or “he’s not good enough for that”. Many leaders refuse to have a conversation with their team to understand their goals, desires and needs.
Instead, they expect their team members to come forward and tell them this information. Unfortunately, not all people are comfortable with their managers, so this may never happen!
Many leaders expect their team to step up instead asking them to. However, everybody is different. An introverted, quiet worker may be great for your next opportunity. But the chances are, they won’t run up to you and shout that in your face. It’s up to leaders to offer opportunity, rather than simply expecting the most confident people to grab it.
Stop the negative self fulfilling prophecy
OK. It is *possible* that in the earlier example, Nick was actually not up to the job. Kelly may have been right. Nick is a loser and should be abused, ridiculed and booted onto the street.
But how can you know for sure?
The only way to know is to offer support and believe in the people around you. If you set up a positive environment, then you have the best chance. If there is still a problem, you have your answer. But don’t sabotage yourself by letting your opinions about someone cloud your judgement. You need to challenge your opinions so that you can set the right conditions for somebody to succeed.
Giving somebody an opportunity is not enough. You need to set them up for success by supporting them. Showing your support may help you to implement a positive self fulfilling prophecy. One that ends in a successful outcome. For more information, read 6 simple ways to support your team.
Wouldn’t you rather say “I told you so” about someone succeeding than being a failure? Give someone a chance, and they may just surprise you.
Have you see a self fulfilling prophecy in action? Let me know in the comments below!