Self-fulfilling prophecies and why they matter when coaching

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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.

Matt Somers

Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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