Self-fulfilling prophecies and why they matter when coaching

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching principles

Self-fulfilling prophecies and why they matter when coachingResearchers refer to three kinds of self-fulfilling prophecy, one of which creates a negative result.

The Galatea effect

The Galatea effect refers to self-belief, the idea that if you believe you can succeed you will. High-performers in any field and blessed with strong self-belief. They trust themselves to succeed, take an optimistic view of most situations and see ‘failures’ as learning opportunities.

When coaching someone over the long term you’ll almost certainly want to help people access this state of mind, but it may take some time and patience if they’re carrying a lot of negative baggage. In which case the second kind of self-fulfilling prophecy may be useful.

The Pygmalion effect

The Pygmalion effect describes the notion of believing in others’ ability to such an extent that they begin to believe in it themselves. In George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins is able to pass off flower girl Eliza Doolittle as a duchess through a combination of appropriate training and, more importantly an unwavering belief that she could succeed.

In his book The New Alchemists, Charles Handy examined the key attributes of successful business and social entrepreneurs. Many of the entrepreneurs interviewed spoke of having someone in their background who believed in them no matter what. Handy refers to such people as sewing golden seeds but I think coaching is as good a term as any for describing what they do.

The Golem effect

Finally, we need to be wary of the Golem effect, which like Theory X, suggests that if we expect people to do badly they won’t disappoint.

Some years back whilst I was still working in a bank, a memo arrived explaining that due to the Data Protection Act (or something similar) coming into force we could have a look at our staff files if we wanted to. Previously these had been kept under lock and key and were considered none of our business. I thought it would be great to find out what had been written about me at appraisal interviews and so on down the years, so I responded to the memo and arranged to look at the file. Most of the content was boring stuff but there at the bottom of the file were my original interview notes completed at the time of my application as a 15-year-old schoolboy. Most of this sheet was taken up with administrative detail but the interviewer’s comments caught my attention. The final line on the page read: ‘Mr Somers is worth taking on but only as a low-achiever’.

Now, the point of this anecdote is not to suggest that the interviewer was completely wrong and that in fact I went on to set the world of banking on fire because I didn’t. What’s more to the point is to think about the impression such a comment created in the minds of my first managers. It’s likely that I would have been given the most menial tasks being a low-achiever and that any mistakes I made would confirm the view that I was a low achiever. I thank goodness it was more than 10 years before I realised that such a comment had been made or I’d have ended up believing it too!

In short, as coaches we need to take a positive view of people. We need to believe they can before we decide that they can’t. Yes there’s a chance that people might not succeed and we might be disappointed but the alternative is to keep people small, and if we treat people as small, small is how they’ll stay.

A little bit more X and Y

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching principles

A little bit more X and YI have written before about Douglas McGregor and his Theory X and Theory Y suppositions about management behaviour. (See My Coaching Philosophy)

According to McGregor, Theory X Managers take the view that people:

  • essentially dislike work and will avoid it all together if possible
  • are motivated only by money or fear
  • need discipline and constant supervision
  • can’t be trusted
  • avoid responsibility
  • lack loyalty and commitment
  • lack creativity – accept in finding ways to avoid work!

Let’s just stop for a moment and consider how a manager would treat people if she held this view. I think it’s likely she would:

  • put tight controls in place to ensure people are working when they should be
  • exercise firm control over all activities and have rigorous reporting procedures in place
  • Define work to a fine level of detail and prescribe precisely how tasks should be carried out
  • remind people often that the organisation pays their wages and how easily they can be replaced

Let’s now think about how people are most likely to react if this is typically how they are treated. I would assume they’ll:

  • do what they need to do to get the job done, but no more
  • resist change
  • refuse to take on extra responsibility without more pay
  • resist at all costs requests to work more flexibly

I can’t imagine that creativity and innovation would flourish in this atmosphere either.

Theory Y managers on the other hand, take the view that people:

  • have psychological as well as economic reasons for working
  • are motivated by achievement, recognition, praise, etc
  • work to their own standards – often higher than the boss’s
  • are totally trustworthy
  • seek responsibility
  • are keen to be loyal and committed
  • are a great source of ideas

How would a manager treat her staff if she believed theory Y to be true? Perhaps she would:

  • Offer praise and encouragement, thanking people publicly for their efforts
  • look for contributions from team members in terms of what needs doing and how it should be done
  • set objectives for the team and then leave them alone to carry them out

Treated this way, I think it’s reasonable to expect that her team would:

  • justify the faith she has shown by getting results
  • put in the extra effort when required
  • take on extra responsibility
  • be loyal in difficult times

Neither of these views is right or wrong and each is clearly quite extreme. Most managers are probably a blend of parts of each and their views will probably change depending on how things are going when you ask them.

The question therefore becomes if neither view is right, wrong or permanent, which view is more useful to us as managers who coach?

Theory Y would seem to offer the greatest scope for achieving improved results because of a concept known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. As we saw above, if we treat people as if Theory X were true they will tend to behave in a way which reinforces that belief. The same is true for Theory Y.

More on this next time.

What percentage of people’s potential do you see at work?

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching principles

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What percentage of people's potential do you see at work?I have asked this question dozens of times at seminars and training courses and have yet to get an answer of 100% or even close.  Most responses come in the 30% – 60% range suggesting that there’s a lot of ability out there that remains untapped. That’s a pretty strong business case for having effective coaching at work I would suggest. After all, you pay for 100% potential, but how much do you actually get?

But how do people even form a view? On what do we base our estimates? Asked to justify their answer people will point to a variety of explanations. I remember one lady telling me about a member of her team who was difficult and unpopular at work yet who achieved great results as a youth volunteer in his spare time. On another occasion somebody highlighted the many working mums tucked out of sight in mundane roles despite being able to run a household, raise children and run the family finances at the same time. What if work was organised in such a way as to give people a chance to let these hidden talents shine through?

Often the answer is ‘I’ve absolutely no idea what percentage of people’s potential we see at work!‘. We can fairly easily see the results or outcomes of using potential by way of the amount or quality of a person’s work; their performance in other words. But judging how much of their potential was used to bring this about is difficult, time consuming and arguably unnecessary. Unless we want performance and results to improve of course, in which case it’s vital to understand how much capacity for improvement there might be.

I believe there is a compelling case for organisations to spend more time considering potential. Businesses obsess over performance and results and rightly so as this is how we determine how well we’re doing, but in terms of making changes and improving things we need to start thinking in terms of potential; what we could do, just as much as what we have done.

Unfortunately the world of work is not organised this way. It is hard to make a case for retaining an employee who is under performing but whom we sense could go on to great things. Employers understandably hedge their bets and seek to buy proven potential directly from the labour market. Top jobs are to be filled only by those on the graduate development programme. External candidates must have the ‘right’ MBA and so on. But just as with the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future results. What people have done is not necessarily linked to what they could do. Nevertheless, we can’t employ people based on a leap of faith or retain poor performers on the basis of benefit of the doubt, but we do need to manage them in such a way as to give them every chance to let their potential come out.

Potential is by definition latent – i.e. hidden or under-developed – and so we cannot ask prospective employees to bring a sort of ‘certificate of potential’ with them to the recruitment or promotion interview. We have, instead, to take a view on how much potential a person may have and this view is likely to be informed by our own beliefs and values and by our own experience at work.

More on this next time.