The impact of self fulfilling prophecy

Ever heard these types of statements 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 many assumptions, and are rarely said directly to the person involved. These words are the beginning of a self fulfilling prophecy.

A self fulfilling prophecy starts because of a held belief. If I believe people in my team are incapable, 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 believe that 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 the outcome. 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 unconsciously focuses on the signs that things are going wrong. She becomes more convinced that there is a problem and that she was right. Nick senses this. He can tell that Kelly is focused intensely on his every move 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. He starts to second-guess himself and takes longer to make decisions. He doesn’t think that Kelly has his back. He 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. Now this belief is stronger than ever, making it very difficult to change.

Stop assuming, start offering opportunity

This phenomenon isn’t magic. You can’t delude yourself into thinking that things are fine when they aren’t. The mere act of believing something doesn’t make it true. A self fulfilling prophecy only happens because your belief makes you treat the world differently. Then the world responds back to you in kind.

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Therefore, if you start believing that your team member has the ability to lead something, you will treat them that way. You will demonstrate trust, and start to give them autonomy. This trust may even be rewarded with greater commitment, 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 up to 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 workers 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, introspective 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 alpha-dog employees to grab it.

Putting a stop to the negative self fulfilling prophecy

OK. It is *possible* that in the earlier example, Nick was actually out of his depth and not up to the job. Kelly may have been right. Nick is a loser and should be scorned, 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 positive conditions for success, then you have the best chance. If there is still a problem, you have your answer. But don’t sabotage yourself by letting your existing held beliefs about someone cloud your judgement. You need to challenge your preconceptions 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.

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.

Originally published at on August 6, 2017.

Author: Ben Brearley

Manager, leader, MBA and former management consultant passionate about developing thoughtful, effective leaders. Find me at

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