Updated: Feb 18
There are so many wonderful voices on the planet. How did completely unknown, 47-year-old Susan Boyle, quietly living in the middle of nowhere, become a star on the world music stage? It was as though Hollywood’s fantastic story My Fair Lady came to life. Susan didn’t look any more promising as an international music star than did Eliza Doolittle, the drab, dirty flower girl, look like a duchess.
Someone saw the potential, the amazing possibilities buried in Susan, just waiting to be channeled and released. Someone, from his many years as a blunt, often tactless judge on the television show American Idol, that many people love to hate: Simon Cowell.
Two Magical Elements
This first part of the magic is believing in someone, that they can succeed. The second part, the most difficult part, is believing that you can help this person. Believing you can guide them, give them feedback and bring to life their unique abilities.
We discussed the stunning power of The Law of Belief in an earlier blog, Thinking Traps Part 2. Whatever people believe with strong feeling becomes their reality. People behave according to their understanding of reality.
Simon Cowell believed without reservation that Susan had a vocal gift. He also strongly believed that he had the all the ability necessary to help her develop that gift at a world class level. Therefore, he behaved as though these beliefs were true. He provided all of the behavioral signals to Susan that she could be successful. He managed all the factors over which he had control to make her successful.
Everyday, Susan saw Simon’s beliefs come to life in his behaviors. He reinforced her skills and behaviors that moved her toward success. She internalized the powerful force of Simon’s beliefs and acted on them. This virtuous cycle became what is known as self-fulfilling prophecy.
According to Robert Merton, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy can be summarized in five key principles:
We form certain expectations of people or events
We communicate those expectations with various behavioral cues
People respond to these cues by adjusting their behavior to match them
The result is that the original expectations are achieved
This process creates a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies
What Can You as a Manager Do with the Power of Self-fulfilling Prophecy?
You can make it work as a miraculous positive force to help people achieve their goals, which might well correlate with your goals and organization goals. All that goal congruence could be wonderful for everyone involved.
Or very sadly, you might inadvertently use the power of self-fulfilling prophecy in a negative way. You may have low expectations for someone, to whom you communicate signals of low performance, who behaves in a responsive way and achieves those low expectations.
Self-fulfilling prophecy is strongly related to our blind spots, to how we give feedback, and to the scarily powerful confirmation bias. Managers have to use all aspects of their Emotional Intelligence to properly work with the magic of self-fulfilling prophecy.