Self Fulfilling Prophecy Triangle

My math teacher set high standards and was very demanding. My English teacher was the opposite. He expected very little from his students. For the most part student performance matched teacher expectations.

The self-fulfilling prophecy maintains that “what you expect is what you get.” High expectations lead to high performance; low expectations lead to low performance. The three parts of the self-fulfilling prophecy triangle include:


  • Assumptions
  • Manager/leader expectations and behavior
  • Employee reactions


In his book, The Human Side of Enterprise, Douglas McGregor, a social psychologist, proposed Theory X and Y. Theory Z was developed by William Ouchi in his book, Theory Z: How American Management Can Meet the Japanese Challenge. Each theory starts with a set of assumptions about people.

Theory X assumes the average worker:


  • dislikes work and attempts to avoid it
  • prefers to be directed
  • avoids responsibility
  • wants security above all else

Theory Y assumes the average worker:


  • finds work fulfilling and enjoyable
  • is self directed to meet objectives if he/she is committed to them
  • seeks and accepts responsibility
  • wants to learn, grow and develop

Theory Z assumes the average worker:


  • is loyal
  • can be trusted
  • is able to handle freedom in doing his/her job
  • is interested in teamwork

Manager/Leader Expectations and Behavior

The assumptions managers make about their employees influences what they expect and how they treat them. For example, if I assume people are lazy, irresponsible and unmotivated, I will assign tasks on a piece-meal basis and micromanage. In addition, I will frequently criticize their work and tell people they are lazy and irresponsible. On the other hand, if I assume people are smart, motivated, responsible, and eager to learn, I’ll provide challenging assignments, freedom to do their jobs, and frequent coaching. Also, I’ll periodically praise their accomplishments and affirm my belief in their talents and abilities.

Employee Reactions

Employees tend to respond positively to a manager’s high expectations and confidence in their abilities. If you expect people to be “winners” and treat them like “winners,” pretty soon they start to act like “winners.” As people achieve assigned goals they are given more responsibilities for growth and development. The opposite is also true. If a manager’s expectations are low, employee productivity is likely to be poor. More often than not people do what they think they are expected to do.

Student Reactions

Dr. Glenn Latham, former professor at Utah State University, was recognized as an expert in the behavioral sciences, particularly in family and school settings. He did some interesting research on how teachers’ behavior influences student behavior. In some classrooms he found students were hardworking, cheerful and well mannered; in others students were lazy, sullen and poorly mannered. What’s the difference? Dr. Latham states, “There are many contributing factors, but I believe the major one may be the ratio of positive to negative interactions between the teacher and student. The higher ‘P/N Ratio’ the better the atmosphere in the classroom, the better students behave, and the more they learn.”

In some classrooms the average P/N ratio was one to four. In other words, teachers typically interacted with students in negative ways four times as often as they interacted in positive ways. Dr. Latham taught many teachers how to be more positive with students. Increasing the “P/N Ratio” to say 10/1 had a marked effect on the emotional tone of the classroom and the students had increased academic success. In this case teachers were coached to change their behavior which resulted in better student performance.

Setting Expectations

Why do some managers and leaders set low expectations for their people? I believe there are a number of reasons:

  1. Theory X assumptions – Some managers do believe most people have little ambition and motivation. Therefore they expect very little.
  2. The need to be liked – Some managers and leaders want to be liked. They don’t set demanding goals because they think people will react with anger and resentment to the person setting the goal.
  3. Fear of failure – Some managers and leaders have a fear of failure: “What if I set these stretch goals and we don’t hit them? It’s safer to go for a 5% improvement.”
  4. Heavy workload – Some managers believe that people’s workloads are already heavy, and demanding more will put their employees over the edge.

On the other hand, top managers and leaders are demanding. They often set stretch goals such as improving productivity by 50% or cutting cost by 40%. How do people react to these types of “killer goals”? With comments like, “you can’t be serious” and “there’s no way we can cut cost by 40%.” However, these managers and leaders have great confidence in their people. They believe most people possess far more ability, energy and talent than they realize.


A change in one of these three variables – assumptions, what managers expect, and employee reactions – will usually impact the other two variables. As mentioned earlier, a change in assumptions about people produces a change in what we expect they can accomplish. Employees respond to meet their manager’s expectations. Another example – if my employee makes a sudden and dramatic improvement in his performance I will be forced to reexamine my assumption about his abilities and motivation. New assumptions will lead me to “raise the bar.” I will not only expect more but I will also affirm my belief in his talents.


The concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy can be summarized in three key principles:

  • Managers and leaders form certain expectations about people.
  • They communicate their expectations through goal setting, planning, providing feedback and day-to-day interactions.
  • People tend to respond and behave in ways that exemplifies what is expected of them.

The bottom-line – raise the bar. Be demanding. Expect more than what others think is possible.

Applying the Concept

Sandra Schrift, The Business Professional’s Speech Coach and author of Speak Like a Pro for Profit.

Bobbi applied for the job as administrative assistant in my company. She had no work experience and just a minimal education in office skills. She dressed well and showed her eagerness to get the position. I hired Bobbi even though I knew I was taking a risk, but I believed she would succeed.

And so I decided to put the “self-fulfilling prophecy” to work. I told Bobbi of my faith in her and the high expectations I had for her performance.

From the beginning I had “Theory Y” assumptions about Bobbi. She responded. She enjoyed her position, was self directed and wanted to participate in growing the company. Within months Bobbi was an excellent example of “Theory Z” – loyal, trustworthy, brought new ideas to her position and was a great team player.

Paul Thornton is right on when he says: “Raise the bar. Be demanding. Expect more than others think is possible.” Bobbi was a winner for herself and the company.