Self-fulfilling prophecy – how our perceptions can influence reality


Why will some people succeed while others fail? If you have ever participated in a team sport as a youngster you might recall that some players always got to play more than others. These players where often those with the best skills and therefore the coaches preferred them over other less skilled players. As a result, these players would become better and the others had to work harder and often failed to improve in order to catch a spot on the team. This effect could be caused by something called the self-fulfilling prophecy.

A self-fulling prophecy is a prediction that causes itself to come true due to the simple fact that the prediction was made. This happens because our beliefs influence our actions (for a very good book on the subject I advise you to read Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely).

When you think you are good at something you often do better than when you try to do something you don’t think you are able to do. Managers, coaches and others have the power in their actions to foster the behavior they want to see, through positive and negative reinforcement.

A coach on a team will have some expectations of its players. The coach will form a positive expectations about a good skilled player player and therefore let that player play more often. The coaches behavior is affected by their expectation about that particular player. This affects the players self-confidence and ability because they are able to play more. This again leads to the players behavior becoming consistent with the expectations of the coach and therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy has occurred.  The same happens, but in a negative way, when the coach has negative expectations of a player. Self confidence is lowered and less matching means poorer ability.

As a manager you must be aware of this. You might have some people in your team that has been very consistent in their performance for years and others who never seems to get it. When you have high expectations of an employee you tend to give them more attention and let them work on more important projects and in general give them more autonomy in their work. Low expectations on the other hand could lead to many situations where poor performance is expected and you tend to be tougher on them and less willing to give these employees more responsibility.

The lesson to learn from this is that as a manager you must have realistic expectations of all you team members. This means that you need to check everything about the work the employee is set to do, the employees knowledge, abilities and skills and your own expectations towards that person. You need to communicate optimism and hope to all employees and focus on the positive and not the negative. Be optimistic towards your employees to ensure a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. Your perceptions can influence reality.

As a leader you must think positive, and get rid of the negatives. That could be yourself or others in your organization. But remember, no matter how positive and open-minded you are, In some cases spending to much time on people that are under-achievers is not worthwhile.

What is your experience with self-fulfilling prophecy?

(This post has been edited slightly after it was posted)

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4 thoughts on “Self-fulfilling prophecy – how our perceptions can influence reality

  1. in my opinion we cannot just throw away all that appear to be underachievers the question we need to as ourselves is what is the cause of this behavior when kids do have low self esteem they would not do as well as those whose family life is more stable and even getting down to figuring out why this kids self esteem is that low to begin with and what can we do to help uplift them to do better rather than beret them and not giving more chances can actually do more harm than good to their self esteem what is needed is to work with them and help them along.

  2. “Self fulfilling prophecies”, seem to focus on attitude. what if, it’s actually about ability, that the person knows themselves well enough, that they know what they are capable of, and know what they can and can’t do.

  3. This makes a lot of sense, Now that I read this I have seen many co employees become discouraged and simply not care anymore because a younger person with less expertise comes in and gets more praise and better treatment than the person whos been there longer and knows the job better than anyone else but hes rough around the edges compared to the new shiny employee,

  4. The idea behind the self fulfilling prophecy is essentially that people can have their own beliefs that may or may not be true. the person’s action of a certain belief will actually make it come true.

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