We have all heard of the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Mostly, the way we use that idiom is as a sort of shorthand for a superstition that if we think something bad will happen it mysteriously will turn out that way. But there is an insidious, and verifiable truth behind the phrase. Maybe you already know that when you expect the worst of a situation or conversation, you are likely to alter your behavior in unconscious and subtle ways that will shape the outcome to be worse than it necessarily would have been. Clearly, we do that. We think we know how someone will react to a piece of news or a certain comment, and then, lo and behold, they do exactly what we expect. It’s easy to chalk this up to your deep, intimate (and cynical) knowledge of the other person. But could it be that your own speech patterns, inflections, micro-expressions and body language were projecting your expectations? Might that have shaped the response?
That’s a tough nut to crack if you try to change your own behavior without changing your expectations. In fact, you probably can’t really do without altering your fixed belief about that other person. Why? Because the unconscious signals you emit will still be there, with or without your permission. And of course, the sub-conscious of the person with whom you are interacting will be equally as attuned to those messages and behave accordingly. The subliminal signs, both the ones given and those received, are operating on us and through us all the time. Unlike our words, they are both honest and overt unless you’re a certifiable psychopath. One of the things you may want to explore in the new year is reshaping your “knowledge” about the people in your life. Perhaps, when you change your beliefs and expectations of them, they will behave differently too. That resolution and sticking to it could save a marriage, a partnership, a job or a friendship!
Now here is a thornier version of the same problem. How are we shaping the performance of our employees, peers, colleagues and clients without even knowing them? And how are they shaping their own performance based on presuppositions about themselves and the world? Our racial, ageist, sexist, innate cynicism and other unconscious biases express themselves just as much as those we have about our intimate friends and family. In fact, there is fairly good data to suggest that even something as abstract as children’s beliefs about the very nature society can shape the outcomes of their schoolwork and conduct. Godfrey, Santos and Burson found that when low-income students believed that “everyone has a chance to make it”, the children got better grades, had better attendance and fewer conduct issues than their statistically identical peers who believed the system was unfair and rigged against “people like them”. From a slightly different angle, there was a very large analysis done of children in China, where parents hope to have children in the years of the dragon (according to the Chinese calendar), as it is believed to be lucky for the child’s prospects. A very large statistical study by Mocan and Yu found that children born in the year of the dragon really did out-perform equally able students who were born in other years. A very deep dive into the data suggested that it was a result of the parents’ holding extraordinarily high expectations of those dragon babies and behaving consistent with those expectations. The children lived up to the expectations.
So, if you have team members who have self-defeating beliefs about themselves, the world, the workplace or the company, they are probably likely to play out those beliefs in their own work. Why is that relevant now? Imagine, if you can, what women working in tech (for example) must believe about their industry, options, workplace or career prospects given what we have learned recently about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and sexist hiring practices in the tech world? Even if those beliefs have been unconscious, they are working on the women to shape their behavior, choices, performance and results. And the correlated set of beliefs must also be operating through and on their employers and peers.
The same is true for minorities in the workplace, as it is for majorities, whether those are doctors within the medical industry or young, white men in tech start-ups, or older, white men in venture capital. Our expectations and beliefs are working on us and expressing themselves through us all the time. We are unconsciously telling others exactly what we believe, no matter what words come out of our mouths. We are also perceiving the signals that others are giving us – whether our bosses, clients, vendors, peers or job applicants.
So, what can you do to change this? I don’t have an answer here. But it is useful to begin to try catching yourself in your biases. I caught myself in one just today. I was at a grocery store where they employ elderly and sometimes disabled people to bag groceries. I am almost always in a rush, so I usually offer to bag my own when it looks like the bagger is going to take too long or bag in a way that I don’t like. Today I did that because the bagger was elderly and I expected him to be slow or to do it badly. As I bagged my own groceries, I watched him expertly bag someone else’s items like a veritable Tetris master. I was ashamed of myself and promised myself to override my mental voice next time it made a similar decision.
We all do it all the time, in big ways and small. But it may be damaging our results and those of others! So take note and use the opportunity of the holidays to practice un-knowing everyone you love, work with and see—even yourself. Let them surprise you, and surprise yourself!