Trust forms the bedrock of healthy relationships, providing the framework for intimacy, mutual respect, and emotional connection to flourish. However, this delicate balance can be swayed by the psychological phenomenon known as the self-fulfilling prophecy.

This concept suggests that our beliefs about others can shape their behaviour in ways that reinforce our initial expectations, either fostering trust, perpetuating distrust and/or embedding beliefs.

An example of this is, if you tell a child they are stupid, clumsy or hopeless often enough those seemingly small insignificant words will create some very big outcomes for that child at some stage in their life. Conversely, if you tell a child they are clever, competent or courageous, similarly these seemingly small words will create some very big outcomes for the child at some stage also.

As parents, leaders, friends, or workplace colleagues imagine how different our lives and the lives of others might be if we started to create consciousness around our interactions with others and the words and phrases we use.

A Story

A few years back, when my son was turning 16, he wanted nothing more than to have a party with his friends.

I am no different from any other parent when it comes to parties and on hearing those words a great shudder went down my spine.

A few friends usually ends up being nothing short of about 50 to 60 kids and if we listen to the horror stories that are frequently reported in the media, a teenage birthday party is sure to get out of hand and become a disaster.

With initial reticence I agreed to the party. It was only fair as his older brother and sister had both had parties as teenagers and we survived those.

I also made the conscious decision and changed my attitude to one of absolute trust as I do trust and have faith in my son, the community of children he hangs out with and the families of the kids involved.

I realised that to not trust the kids would more than likely have set the event up to fail through what I know to be an act of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Concept

The concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy can be summarised in these key principles:

  • We form certain expectations of people or events
  • We communicate those expectations with various cues
  • People tend to respond to these cues by adjusting their behaviour to match them
  • The result is that the original expectation becomes true
  • We then validate and justify the outcome along the lines of ‘see I knew that would happen’

Apply this concept to life and the workplace and it will potentially look something like this:

  • Oh, Tom is so lazy. If you ever want a job done on time, don’t expect this of him.
  • O M G – the group today is really tough. Good luck with getting them to achieve anything (hear, the rolling of the eyes).
  • Oh, so you are dealing with the ABC Company. The HR manager and COO are really difficult to get along with. In fact, I find them really painful.
  • Lee belongs to the union. He is a difficult man, one-eyed and just simply a pain in the butt.
  • Mary, the grievance officer is excellent. She is always willing to listen and very helpful.
  • Dave, the project manager is tough but fair and will back you 100% where necessary.
  • Kids these days are out of control; they drink, are disrespectful and up to no good.

I am sure we can all relate to some or all of these statements in some way?

How often has someone told you that someone else is rude, arrogant, a pain in the butt and upon meeting them you go ‘yes, you are right, I see what you mean.’

Potentially, it is our behaviour, our expectation of the person or event that ultimately creates the outcome.
If we think they are rotten, chances are this is what we will find. If we think the person is rude, that’s what we experience. In some way, we are giving off a cue, which results in the behaviour of the other person, or at least our perception of the behaviour of the other person.

Back to the party story …

Prior to the party a few, not many, parents rang me to better understand what the night would be about and if indeed there would be adult supervision.

Through those conversations it became really clear to me how we as parents (and this applies to leadership in the workplace) can potentially set up the very outcomes we are trying to avoid.

I countered the conversations with assurances that the kids are good kids, I have faith in them as kids, they are all part of a community that hangs out together and some have known each other since pre-school and that I trust they will respect me and the fact that the party is at my house and ONLY those children that are invited will be attending.

And no, I did not expect any of the invited children to post it on Facebook as an open invitation nor text out to hundreds of others just because.

So, on that particular Saturday night I trusted the kids would be kids and that the night would be nothing other than a happy birthday party for my son celebrated with a big bunch of fantastic 15 and 16-year olds.

I am happy to say that is exactly what we got – with a great deal of vigilance and a good dose of adult presence chucked in for good measure and sound planning.

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