Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Expecting Success

A popular myth outside the closely linked passages of Hollywood is that actors are “discovered.” The truth is nearly always less enthralling. More often than not, actors have worked hard to catch the eye of a producer or casting agent, laboring to grab a single audition for a soap commercial (Irish Spring perhaps?) or taking a small role in a horror movie rather than being discovered randomly one evening shopping for detergent. Even the superstars who reign from successful families, such as Kate Hudson, daughter of Goldie Hawn and Bill Hudson, have reported having to work diligently for their achievements (Us, 2009). While nepotism is often cited as a winning cause for actors “making it” there is something more. In fact, individuals with the most talent are not always the most successful. There is a force beyond aptitude – something even greater than nepotism (McNatt & Judge, 2004) – which springs people to the top levels of performance. The actors that have landed the most successful gigs were expected to succeed. This motivation technique, aptly named the Pygmalion effect is a special tenet of self-fulfilling prophecy.

From a meta-analysis performed on this effect, we know that in certain contexts the results are strong (McNatt, 2000, p. 314), including sales environments (Schulman, 1999), military settings, and with groups of auditors (McNatt & Judge, 2004). The question remains then: why do so many of those with high ability remain at the bottom while less-talented individuals rise to the top? Expectancy effects are on par with pure self-determination and ability. To be fair, human motivation is a complex matter. Still, there is a growing consignment of research which suggests that the most successful folks are not only hardworking and capable, but they are expecting and expected to succeed. This expectation has been internalized, but harkens from outside, often from an authority figure (e.g., supervisor or parent) and brings the third driving element into light (Schulman, 1999). An individual’s desire to accomplish something is derived from a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Self-fulfilling prophecy theory proposes that “people’s behaviors are consistent with their expectations and those behaviors in turn influence outcomes” (McNatt & Judge, p. 315). Akin to that, self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1982) affirms that to gain information people use a variety of sources and devise judgments based on their ability to perform tasks at expected levels. These judgments then guide how much effort and diligence people use to obtain the anticipated level of performance. It follows that if a person believes he or she can accomplish a task, his or her actions will follow those beliefs and increase the chances of the belief reaching fruition. Why is it then that this straightforward, logical examination has not reached business culture to the degree that it seems it should?