Assumptions – The fulfilling Prophecy

In doing research for our series of leadership training programmes, I came across a story dating back to 1911 about a horse named Clever Hans. Hans could apparently add, subtract, multiply and divide and solve all sorts of mathematical problems. When asked a question, Hans would tap out the appropriate number with his hoof.

While this appeared to be amazing at the time, it was actually nothing new. A number of animals had been trained to perform such tricks before but they all had to be cued by their trainers. Hans however, was different. He could run through his repertoire even when his owner was not present. In fact, he would answer questions for anyone!

Two researchers with the unlikely names of Stumpt and Pfungst set out to investigate just how Hans was able to solve mathematical equations. What they found was that if the horse could not see the questioner, he could not answer the question. Similarly, if the questioner did not know the answer, the horse couldn’t answer the question either.

They observed that it was the body language of the questioner that gave Hans his cue as to when to stop tapping. This could include a forward inclination of the head or even a dilatation of the nostrils. In other words, people were giving the horse the correct answer by communicating their expectations to him via physical signals. Clever Hans was only clever when people expected him to be!

What struck me was the similarity between the story and the way that people are managed in business. If you expect good things you give off positive signals and you usually get good results! Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. If you assume the worst, you give off negative signals which people pick up on and react accordingly. The chances are that if this occurs, your assumptions will actually prove to be correct. This is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy.

If management in a business assume that employees are lazy and unreliable, they will organise their businesses in such a way as to control employees so as to ensure that they do what is required. For example, the work will be broken down into simple routine tasks which any fool can do. Supervisors will be appointed to check on employees to see that they do what is required.

If this is the basic thinking, the employer will also probably not be too keen on spending money on training or releasing supervisors from their jobs for training or coaching. After all, when the cat’s away, the mice will play!

The tragedy of all this is that given the way the business has been structured, the chances are that employees will feel bored and uncommitted and they probably will goof off when there is no supervision!

To make matters worse, another self-fulfilling prophesy will probably also come into play. That is the perception that it is very difficult to dismiss employees in terms of our labour laws. As a result, supervisors fail to follow the required procedures for correcting unsatisfactory performance and conduct. When an employee does really overstep the line and the supervisor tries to dismiss him, he is unable to do so – because the procedures have not been followed!

The symptoms of this type of thinking can unfortunately be found in most South African businesses and include:

  • High absenteeism and abuse of sick leave;
  • Poor discipline characterised by certain employees with a string of disciplinary offences seemingly able to get away with ‘murder’
  • ­Poor work performance, which is seldom addressed (because of the perception that it is virtually impossible to fire an employee for poor performance)
  • Unfair dismissals being overturned at the CCMA or bargaining councils
  • Strikes, and­ in extreme cases, industrial sabotage.

It is a cycle and it all starts with the assumption that employees are lazy and unreliable and cannot be trusted to do responsible work! Given our past history and the race question, with a lot of managers being white and the majority of employees being black, another dimension is added to the problem.

If we are to compete globally and to normalize our society, we need to break this cycle. The initiative must come from management. It is ridiculous to think that people, who are able to run homes, educate and raise families and participate in community affairs are unable to be trusted with meaningful work or to act in the best interests of their employer.

As a leader, to earn trust, you have to trust others first. Coaching managers to make different assumptions about people is a good start.

Instead of assuming that employees are stupid, lazy and reliable, managers need to rather take the view that most people want to:-

  • Feel committed to the aims of their employer
  • Be viewed as an important member of a team
  • Receive recognition when it is due
  • ­Use their creative and other abilities
  • Be kept informed of matters that affect them, including the financial status of the business
  • Be consulted and to participate in decision making
  • Learn and grow to their full potential.

Once employers start to think this way a whole range of options, including the introduction of self-directed work teams opens up.

The Centre for Leadership offers a range of courses, group facilitation and consultancy to build high performing teams and leaders. For tailor-made solutions to your challenges, please get in touch with us.