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Posted on: Tuesday, 27 December 2016 by Rajiv Popat

This happened to all of us way back in our school days. The teachers would label the hard working, high scoring, intelligent students from the ones who were ruckus creators; and then they would treat those two groups differently.

You knew the ruckus creator back in nursery, the guy usually remained a ruckus creator all the way through high school while the hard working scholar, would top almost every class growing up. Information about who was a star student and who was a ruckus creator flowed from teacher to teacher as you moved from one class to another. If you were the ruckus creator who wanted to genuinely change you were screwed and you virtually couldn’t!

“Is he good?”---  that’s a question often discussed between managers when onboarding a person on a project. The idea and the central premise being, if the guy has worked with a different manager in the past and you happen to know the person he worked under, why not take a quick input from that manager before onboarding the person on your project?

Adam M. Grant, shatters this myth and methodology of ‘searching for star performers’ in his book ‘Give and Take’ where he takes the relationship between ‘performance’ and ‘reputation through word of mouth’ and turns the causation between these two upside down. He explains:

Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal, who teamed up with Lenore Jacobson, the principal of an elementary school in San Francisco. In eighteen different classrooms, students from kindergarten through fifth grade took a Harvard cognitive ability test.

The test objectively measured students' verbal and reasoning skills, which are known to be critical to learning and problem solving. Rosenthal and Jacobson shared the test results with the teachers: approximately 20 percent of the students had shown the potential for intellectual blooming, or spurting. Although they might not look different today, their test results suggested that these bloomers would show "unusual intellectual gains" over the course of the school year.

The Harvard test was discerning: when the students took the cognitive ability test a year later, the bloomers improved more than the rest of the students. The bloomers gained an average of twelve IQ points, compared with average gains of only eight points for their classmates. The bloomers outgained their peers by roughly fifteen IQ points in first grade and ten IQ points in second grade.

Two years later, the bloomers were still outgaining their classmates. The intelligence test was successful in identifying high-potential students: the bloomers got smarter—and at a faster rate—than their classmates.

Based on these results, intelligence seems like a strong contender as the key differentiating factor for the high-potential students.

But the Harvard cognitive ability test, was not a way to identify students who were going to be bloomers in the coming years! It was nothing more than a trick experiment designed by the psychologist to prove his hypothesis. Adam explains:

The students labeled as bloomers didn’t actually score higher on the Harvard intelligence test. Rosenthal chose them at random.

The study was designed to find out what happened to students when teachers believed they had high potential. Rosenthal randomly selected 20 percent of the students in each classroom to be labeled as bloomers, and the other 80 percent were a control group. The bloomers weren’t any smarter than their peers. The difference “was in the mind of the teacher.”

Yet the bloomers became smarter than their peers, in both verbal and reasoning ability. Some students who were randomly labeled as bloomers achieved more than 50 percent intelligence gains in a single year. The ability advantage to the bloomers held up when the students had their intelligence tested at the end of the year by separate examiners who weren’t aware that the experiment had occurred, let alone which students were identified as bloomers. And the students labeled as bloomers continued to show gains after two years, even when they were being taught by entirely different teachers who didn’t know which students had been labeled as bloomers. Why?

Teachers’ beliefs created self-fulfilling prophecies. When teachers believed their students were bloomers, they set high expectations for their success. As a result, the teachers engaged in more supportive behaviors that boosted the students’ confidence and enhanced their learning and development. Teachers communicated more warmly to the bloomers, gave them more challenging assignments, called on them more often, and provided them with more feedback.

In the book, Adam describes how the same experiment was repeated again and again, in fields like sports, workplace and even the armed forces and how the same results stood true each time.

As a person who manages teams of capable developers, I have always intuitively believed in the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies, but seeing a quantification of how strong our biases and influences are and how they end up effecting the people who work with us, is a little… scary, to say the least.

So, the next time you ask another manager about the efficiency and capability of an individual that you are onboarding without even evaluating the person on his / her own merit, be aware that you might be unknowingly setting up the stage to create and then support a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What’s even more scary is the idea that a lot of new budding managers find it hard to delegate work to their team members because they believe the team members would not be able to do those tasks as well as they do the tasks themselves. Put simply, these managers start out with the assumption that their team is not as effective or productive as they themselves are. When you put that in perspective with the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies and the real power these prophecies have, where does this leave you as a manager? Where does this leave your team? Just a little something to think about.