How you condemn your staff to failure

Rats and children are not so different

They are similar in the way they behave:

  • If you think a rat is clever, then it will become clever
  • If you think a child is clever then it will become clever as well

Those might be scientifically proven facts, but proof and explanation are not the same thing.  How does the way a teacher thinks about a child (or an experimenter thinks about a rat) result in the child (or rat) becoming cleverer?

How does the self-fulfilling prophecy work?

Is it a kind of magic?  Robert Rosenthal carried out studies in the classroom that explain how belief drives reality.  It is all down to four simple things that most of us would do subconsciously:


If a teacher thinks a child is clever the teacher behaves more warmly to that child, he gives the child more eye contact, laughs at the child’s jokes, shows the child more encouragement and makes the child feel happy to be in the classroom.


As the (cringeworthy) phrase goes, feedback is the breakfast of champions.  If a child is to learn it needs to know when it has got things right and when it has got them wrong.  If a teacher thinks a child is clever then he will give the child more and varied feedback.


Children that are expected to succeed are given different assignments, more complex challenges, extra homework to complete.  Maybe this shows the child that it is well thought of, maybe it gives the child no choice but to learn more, but either way, it appears to work.


An output is the chance to show what you have learnt.  Answering a question is an output, finishing a project is an output, reading out loud in class is an output.  Teachers give the children they think will do well the opportunity to answer questions.

It is a virtuous spiral

It is easy to understand how some children thrive in school, getting better and better, achieving more and more, but the spiral works both ways.  It is just as easy to see how other children simply plod through school, never achieving anything and dropping out.

Very few teachers would intentionally condemn a child to failure, but I can understand how that failure happens.

What has this got to do with your staff?

There is a lot of similarity between teachers and managers

  • They both try to improve performance
  • They both control the working environment
  • They both provide feedback
  • They both hand out assignments
  • They both have their favourites

It isn’t so hard to believe that the vicious and virtuous spirals work the same way in the workplace as they do in the classroom.

Something to remember next time you hand out a “below standard” performance appraisal.

This blog post has been re-published by kind permission of James Lawther

Published On: 23rd Apr 2014 - Last modified: 29th Jan 2019
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