Management Is Not Meteorology
The hidden self-fulfilling prophecies in our decisions.
Posted July 30, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- We can inadvertently affect the predictions we make. These situations become self-fulfilling prophecies.
- If we don't pay attention, we learn the wrong lessons from experience.
In the 1999 film The Matrix, when Neo visits the Oracle for the first time, the Oracle tells him not to worry about the vase. This warning leads Neo to quickly turn around and break a vase. He asks how she knew, to which she answers with a question: “Would you still have broken it, if I hadn’t said anything?”
If he wouldn’t have broken it, then this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. French poet Jean de La Fontaine said: “A person often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.” Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort would probably agree.
So, what happens when some of our actions can inadvertently affect – both positively and negatively – the outcomes we predict?
Self-fulfilling decision traps
Say, Oliver, the manager, has a prior belief that certain employees are “management material” and should eventually be promoted. If he then treats these people differently, giving them particular tasks and feedback that will help them improve, he would be contributing to his own positive prophecy. And at the same time, if he treats certain employees discouragingly because of a prior belief about their lack of potential, he would be contributing to his own negative prophecy.
Say, Amber, the hiring officer, claims that she is great at judging people quickly. A few seconds and sentences are enough for her to assess their characters. Yet if she treats those who create a good first impression better than others, she would contribute to her own positive prophecy, especially if the other person also reciprocates, treating Amber nicely and respectfully. The opposite can occur as well: negative first impression, worse treatment, the other person reciprocates, bad outcome.
And when those self-fulfilling prophecies happen again and again, they would gradually reinforce Oliver’s and Amber’s beliefs that they have oracle-like abilities when diagnosing situations and people. Oliver and Amber would be deceived by their own experience.
Meteorology vs. self-fulfilling prophecy
We tend to trust our experience uncritically. We make decisions, observe the results, and deduce insights, which then form the basis of our upcoming decisions. However, it's not guaranteed that experience would always teach the right lessons.
In particular, to avoid a possible self-fulfilling prophecy trap, one question we can ask is: To what degree is the situation like meteorology?
Meteorologists make predictions about the weather all the time, but they can never affect the outcomes of those predictions. No self-fulfilling prophecy there. A manager, however, can do it all the time and subsequently learn the wrong lessons, without even being aware.
Soyer, E., & Hogarth, R. M. (2020). The Myth of Experience: Why We Learn the Wrong Lessons, and Ways to Correct Them. PublicAffairs.