Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Organizations

It’s the first week of 2019, a brand new year. You probably have a list of work-related goals to mark this new beginning, whether it is to make more money or to tackle a big project. Or, as a leader, you likely have some goals for your employees. Are these goals too easy? Or do they seem to be too hard to achieve? Before you reexamine these goals, let’s first talk about the self-fulfilling prophecy, or Pygmalion effect.

Pygmalion was a sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory and fell in love with it. His love and devotion to his creation moved Aphrodite, the goddess of love, so she granted Pygmalion’s wish to make the ivory sculpture come alive. Today, the Pygmalion effect, also known as the Rosenthal effect, is used to describe the phenomenon where high expectations for another person’s behavior, whether it is from yourself or others, can actually lead to these expected behaviors. In Pygmalion’s case, the high expectation he had for his artwork served as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The self-fulfilling prophecy has been suggested as a management tool by experts for many decades. Psychology experiments have shown that subjects who were given high expectations by researchers at the beginning of experiments consistently outperformed those who were given low expectations.[1] Field studies also found strong relationships between leader expectations and subordinate performance.[2],[3]

But high expectations alone cannot lead to excellent performance. According to a model of self-fulfilling prophecy at work,[4] leaders who have high expectations toward subordinates’ performance outcomes will exhibit more leadership behaviors that aim toward facilitating and motivating their employees, and constantly give positive feedback. Consequently, subordinates’ self-expectations and self-efficacy (a person’s belief in his/her ability to perform) will increase. Meanwhile, with help from the leaders, they have more resources to perform their tasks. As a result, these employees will exert more effort at work and achieve the high expectations the leaders set for them at the beginning. Eventually, the self-fulfilling prophecy becomes self-sustaining, where high performance leads to future high expectations, and so on.

However, the self-fulfilling prophecy can be harmful to individual performance in cases where low expectations from the leader result in poor subordinate performance – when expectations are low, the leader is less likely to facilitate or encourage subordinates’ work. This is called the Golem effect, which is the opposite of the Pygmalion effect. Such neglect and lack of help can impair employees’ motivation and hurt their performance in the end.

Last but not least, as was suggested by the goal-setting theory, expectations should be high, but also realistic and attainable.[5] Simply dreaming big will not help achieve it. An expectation that is way beyond a person’s ability can bruise confidence and crush one’s motivation to persevere.

The self-fulfilling prophecy applies to setting expectations for both self and others, and it is a promising tool for managing yourself and those around you. When you expect more, you get more. Such expectations should be built into both leader-member relationships and organizational training and development regimens.

So, what about your work-related goals for 2019? Will they be your self-fulfilling prophecy?


References:

[1] Korman, A.K. (1971). Expectancies as determinants of performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 55, 218-222.

[2] Stedry, A.C., & Kay, E. (1966). The effects of goal difficulty on performance. Behavioral Science, 11, 459-470.

[3] Berlew, D.E., & Hall, D.T. (1966). The socialization of managers: Effects of expectations on performance. Administrative Science Quarterly, 11, 207-223.

[4] Eden, D. (1992). Leadership and expectations: Pygmalion effects and other self-fulfilling prophecies in organizations. Leadership Quarterly, 3, 271-305.

[5] Locke, E.A., & Latham, G.P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57, 705–717.

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