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The importance of the self-fulfilling prophecy when coming out of a crisis

By Dr Lynda Shaw (pictured), neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist

The self-fulfilling prophecies of leaders and workers could be one of the key determining factors in how a business coped during lockdown and how it will do in a future still full of uncertainty, as we know that our beliefs directly affect our consequences.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a psychological term used to describe a belief or expectation of an event that is powerful enough to influence whether it happens or not through our subsequent actions. There are both positive and negative self-fulfilling prophecies.  For instance, if you believe it will be too hard to reach an achievable goal and choose not to work towards it as a result, that fulfils a negative self-prophecy. Whereas if your goal is to be promoted and you are determined to achieve this through hard work and perseverance, you will be motivated to almost ensure that it happens.  It is important to note we might not even be consciously aware that we have these beliefs or expectations.  Self-fulfilling prophecies are seen in many areas of our lives but particularly in relationships, as children growing up and at a work.

Not only do our expectations for ourselves influence outcomes, but other’s expectations of us also have an impact on our behaviour, feelings and thoughts (otherwise known as the Pygmalion effect).  The self-fulfilling prophecy is used as a business management strategy by numerous experts after research established a link between a leader’s expectations and their employee’s performance. It was found that participants who were given higher expectations by researchers excelled over those who were given lower expectations. HR and business leaders need to consider when you expect more, you tend to get more so this needs to be built into business development and training, whilst being aware that each of us has a tipping balance when too much pressure is counter-effective.

High expectations alone do not ensure improved performance and employee motivation. Good leadership, positive feedback, trust and clear communication are known to positively influence self-esteem, self-expectations, and motivation overall so that employees work harder to reach goals and targets which is win win for a business. In this case, a positive business-fulfilling prophecy has a snowball effect on self-fulfilling prophecy whereby performance increases as each goal is attained and future goals are set to the next level.

The Golem effect occurs when low expectations from leaders are projected onto specific employees causing decreased motivation and performance from employees which can impair future success.   Leaders may have preconceived notions about some of their workers, seeing some as promising and others as inferior and may treat them differently and with a bias that is consistent with their belief, such as deciding to invest less time in them, or provide less training or opportunities.  The employees may come to see themselves as the management does, so the promising ones feel confident, and the less promising ones see themselves as inferior and then the act in ways to match those beliefs.


  1. Attitude & confidence are important – Whilst positive reinforcement and faith from superiors does play a determining factor, this is unattainable without some self-confidence and positive drive from the individual themselves. Confidence is built on accomplishment, so the more goals you reach, the more confident you will become. Much is dependent on an individual’s willingness to achieve and improve themselves.
  2. Set realistic targets – Expectations should be high, but also realistic and attainable. Everyone’s targets are relative and can be increased overtime, so take time to identify your goals and consider what works for you right now. Too high an expectation can have negative effects on confidence and motivation; likewise, expectations that aren’t high enough may not have any or a negative influence on confidence and esteem.
  3. Be open minded – Open mindedness increases the number of ideas and perspectives available to you, expands your ability to solve problems and increases your chances of choosing useful actions which may help contribute towards achieving your goals. Being open minded can be developed overtime, so say yes to learning new things, be inquisitive and embrace new opportunities.
  4. Don’t be put off by setbacks – It’s normal for things to not go exactly as planned, so consider any obstacle thrown your way as something to learn from. Resilience is an important quality and is built through overcoming challenges. Even if it takes slightly longer than planned to reach your goals, with a positive attitude and self-confidence, it is likely that a positive self-fulfilling prophecy will come true in the future.
  5. Practice positivity – Change your beliefs and your language to be more positive. Replace negative perceptions of yourself and your abilities with optimistic ones. Change words like hate, can’t and never to I’ll give it a go or I can. Give it a go. Humans are creatures of habit, but habits can take time to form, and it can take a while for a new behaviour to become automatic.