The forces behind a self-fulfilling prophecy can be powerful.
Whether it’s Muhammad Ali or Joe Namath brashly predicting victory, or a winless high school baseball team anticipating a meltdown in the seventh inning after holding a narrow lead, believing in someone or something can sometimes lead to the anticipated consequences.
This phenomenon occurs in sports, to be sure. But it also takes place in our daily lives – at home, at school and at work. And when it happens at the highest levels of management, it can significantly affect an entire organization – for better or for worse.
Paul Stepanovich, chairman of Southern’s (academic) Management Department, and Pamela Hopkins, professor of management at Southern, say that while there are some very perceptive bosses who understand human and organizational dynamics, there are also bosses who “learn” some faulty logic as it pertains to the operation under their jurisdiction. And this can have a spiraling negative effect on the organization, the employee and ultimately the manager.
As an example, if a supervisor praises an employee, but notices shortly thereafter that the worker’s productivity falls off somewhat, the supervisor over time starts to associate praise with performance drop off. Similarly, if an employee has had a below normal period and is reprimanded by the boss, and suddenly the individual’s performance is on an upswing, the boss starts to assume that the employee is someone who needs to be monitored closely and only performs when the “stick” is used.
And while there are some employees who actually do perform in this manner, Stepanovich believes that more often than not, the perception is faulty. “There is a statistical phenomenon called regression to the mean,” he says. “That basically means that there is a natural variation – or a range – in the performance of an employee that averages out over time.”
In other words, a period of better-than-average performance will usually be followed by a period that isn’t as remarkable. And a period of below average performance will usually be followed by a better performance. In the long run, it averages out to a certain level within a range.
Stepanovich and Hopkins believe that understanding this concept is crucial to good management, but often is not realized by those in authority. As a result, bosses often develop some faulty beliefs that can undermine their own goals. Workers can become resentful, angry and eventually lose heart, no longer caring about their own performance, let along that of the organization to which they belong. In effect, the bosses have created their own problem when one previously had never existed.
In light of Labor Day, we thought we would share with you some of the more common managerial mistakes as seen by Stepanovich and Hopkins:
• Punishing without cause. As stated earlier, performance tends to ebb and flow within a certain range, regardless of whether the person had been recently rewarded or reprimanded. Workers can sometimes become disheartened and eventually lose their energy and drive, often creating the “deadwood” of an organization.
• Changing outlook toward workers. While a boss may enter an organization with a theory that workers generally want to do well, the manager might associate a company’s decline in performance with the view that workers are not trying hard enough. Over time, that association leads to a change in philosophy – a belief that workers need to be coerced to work effectively. In reality, the decline probably would have improved without managerial intervention.
• Development of a micromanagement approach. A supervisor might believe in empowerment of the staff when they start a job, but if an empowerment program is tried and results do not change favorably right away, the supervisor might be tempted to pull the plug. This person starts to monitor the staff more closely and develops a more centralized power structure, thereby leading to problems associated with micromanagement. That outlook can be brought to a new job, as well.
• Creating an overreliance on financial incentives. Incentives can be beneficial, but when if the boss starts to rely too heavily on this tactic, it can backfire. Workers might start to “game the system,” rather than focus on what truly is beneficial to the organization. It is similar to the criticism of the “teaching to the test” approach in education today.