Change Initiatives – Managing self-fulfilling prophecy

In a previous post on taking initiatives to advance your career, I had discussed about handling peers when you take initiatives because they may cause your initiatives to fail. Here I want to talk about another phenomenon that one needs to be aware of. Here is the term I use to describe it: self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wikipedia describes it this way:

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy itself, due to positive feedback between belief and behavior.

In organizations, this is seen most commonly as resistance to change (in process, strategy, technology, etc.). All changes are hard, and organization-wide changes are very hard. Successful changes require 100% commitment and support from 100% of team members and leaders, which is obviously very hard to achieve. This means that every change initiative will have a set of dissenters. Here are typical behaviors dissenters show:

  1. Dissenters doubt the goals and thus reduce effort to avoid wastage (theirs as well as others)
  2. Dissenters do not channel their disagreements into feedback, so the change plan doesn’t get debated enough
  3. Dissenters feel organization will fail, and this negative energy impacts them as well as others around them

Dissenters create the self-fulfilling prophecy, because they start with doubt in their mind, and then their behavior and actions change in a way (unconsciously most of the time) that makes the goal harder to achieve, and can cause failure.

Here are 2 themes I have found powerful to keep in mind:

  1. Failure can be triggered by any one person. Success requires every person to pitch in.
  2. Most strategies/initiatives can work, execution matters more than ideas.

Here is one way to avoid this prophecy taking you to failure (and instead use it to your advantage): First create the positive environment about the impending change initiative where everyone understands the urgency and feels that this is going to be very successful. My way of achieving this (which has worked many times in the past) is by identifying the influencers in the team (some of them are designated leaders, others are networked people in your team) and selling them on the change initiative, repeatedly and consistently, so that they become supporters. They then work hard to make sure people feel positive about this change (that is what influencers do best, selling others on their thoughts). This positivity will cause the self-fulfilling prophecy to kick in again (to your advantage this time) and make people be much more committed and supportive, thus improving the odds of your success.

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