Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship
London Business School

Your expectations manage you

I’ve ranted about self-fulfilling prophecies in management before. Another study along these lines was conducted in the 1970s by Albert King – at the time a professor of management and industrial relations Kansas State University.

Albert conducted an experiment in four different plants owned by one and the same company. The managers of plants 1 and 2 were told, by the company’s director of manufacturing, to experiment with “job enlargement” practices, in which machine crews had to both set up their machines and inspect their own finished work. The other two plants, 3 and 4, were asked to implement “job rotation” practices, in which workers switched tasks at scheduled intervals. Thus, Albert’s experiment appeared to be comparing the results of job enlargement with those of job rotation.*

Then Albert did a cunning thing: he lied. Because he introduced one other crucial difference between the plants. The managers of plants 1 and 3 were told that past research implied that the job changes would raise productivity, while the managers of plants 2 and 4 were led to believe that past research implied that the job changes would improve “industrial relations” (which should result in lower absenteeism).

Subsequently, for a period of 12 months, Albert measured both productivity and absenteeism levels at the four plants. Analysing the data, it turned out that where the plant managers had been told to expect higher productivity, productivity became 6 percent higher; where the plant managers had been told to expect better industrial relations, absenteeism was 12 percent lower, regardless of whether they implemented job-enlargement or job-rotation practices!

The changes in workers’ actual activities really had no influence; productivity at the two job-enlargement plants hardly differed at all, nor did absenteeism at the two job-rotation plants. It were the plant managers’ expectations that caused all the effects.

Albert stopped short of telling the people at the plants that the job changes would enable them to sing like Pavarotti because you’re starting to believe they would have brought the house down. People somehow achieve what they (are led to) believe will happen, regardless of the actual changes to the organisation. As Albert wrote “the results provide evidence that managerial expectations concerning performance may serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

* this paragraph has been adapted from a chapter in a book by Bill Starbuck (2006)

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