Feb 18

Lessons From Mark


Through the telling of a true story, learn how to create self-fulfilling prophecies with a Pygmalion (positive) effect.  Then consider how prophecies can make a positive difference in your organization.  Begin to examine challenges that you confront in your workplace from an uncommon lens, as potentially a self-fulfilling prophecy of a different type, one that has a Golem (negative) effect.

Have you ever considered how self-fulfilling prophecies impact your organization?  Are you aware of how your “knowledge” and beliefs and the “knowledge” and beliefs of your leadership team can unintentionally create an environment where self-fulfilling prophecies with a Golem (negative) effect occur?  Do you know how to intentionally create a context where self-fulfilling prophecies with a Pygmalion (positive) effect can occur?  In this story, Mark illustrates how easy it is to unintentionally create a self-fulfilling prophecy with a Golem effect while I will show you how using an empowering assumption can set the stage for a self-fulfilling prophecy with a Pygmalion effect to occur.

I knew of Mark long before I ever met him. Mark was a client within Indiana’s welfare system, and I was the county director within that system where Mark lived. Over the course of multiple years, I had received dozens of complaints about Mark, more than any other person receiving public assistance. The complaints were always the same. Angry residents would call to report that Mark was bragging “Why should I work when I can get Food Stamps.” Residents always wanted the same solution; they wanted Mark to be taken off of the Food Stamp Program. Because Mark met the eligibility requirements for Food Stamps at that time, I had no authority to remove him from the program. I used to think that 10% of those receiving Food Stamps were the cause for everyone receiving assistance being judged so critically by the general public. I remember thinking that if we could just somehow get rid of that 10% then the welfare system could really work for the rest. Mark at that time was #1 on my list, the very worst of that 10%.

Everything that I had ever heard about Mark was negative: he once attacked a police officer from behind with a knife; he spent time in prison as a result of a felony conviction; he was so volatile that law enforcement always dispatched two cars whenever an incident report concerned him; and he was heavily involved in alcohol and illicit drugs. Mark was built like Popeye and had a reputation for being one of the toughest and most dangerous county residents.

Then I had got my first chance to meet Mark in person. It was during the first three working days of the month and the lobby was full of people lined up to pick up their monthly Food Stamp benefits. Someone was creating a scene, and as county director it was my job to step in, intervene, and address the source of the problem. Typically, out of respect for authority, people would calm down as soon as the county director stepped in to intervene.  When I got to the source, I found myself face to face with an angry, hostile Mark.  When I asked him what the problem was, Mark did not calm down.  He said with hostile aggression “Either you are going to give me my Food Stamps or I am going to kick the shit out of you.” While Mark’s hostility caught me off guard, I did have the common sense, or perhaps lack thereof, to persuade Mark to accompany me to my office to address the problem. When I got him into my office I closed both doors to protect other clients and local office staff from Mark.  I also put myself into a much more vulnerable and dangerous situation because I had no-one to intervene if he acted on his threat.

I found myself sitting across from Mark with only my desk in between us. We spent 90 minutes together in my office that day with much of the conversation going something like this: “I can’t give you Food Stamps because your benefits have expired. You need to schedule an interview first” “Either you give me Food Stamps now or I’m going to kick the shit out of you.” “If you knock the shit out of me, I am going to have you arrested.” “If you have me arrested, I am going to bail out and come back and knock the shit out of you again…” I still remember feeling the sweat pouring like a stream from my arm pits down either side of my body, soaking first my shirt, and then my sport coat.  At times he would lean forward in his chair with muscles tense and ready to fight.  I knew he was dangerous and capable of hurting me. I was scared.  I used every ounce of persuasion skills that day. Finally, after 90 minutes, we reached a compromise. He did not get his Food Stamps that day, and I was not harmed.  He returned later the same week first for an interview to re-establish his eligibility and then again to pick up his Food Stamps.

At that time I was enrolled in graduate school through an external degree program learning the power inherent in the disciplined practice of constructivist thinking. I found myself naturally considering how what I was learning in school related to my work, contemplating what highly effective, results oriented welfare would look like. I learned the power of constructivist thinking by learning how to interact with people acting as if a set of useful assumptions were true. An example of a useful assumption for the welfare system would be: “Each person is interested in working”. I could think of no better test as to the power of this thinking than to try out this useful assumption on Mark. Suppose, in spite of his comments to the contrary, he really was interested in getting a job.

The next month when Mark returned to pick up his monthly Food Stamp benefits, I approached him in the lobby and started a conversation. I was amazed by how friendly we were with one another as if somehow through that incredibly stressful experience we had formed a bond with one another. Then I popped the question, “What if I were to help you get a job?” His response to my question was rather lengthy. He did not want to do janitorial work because that was beneath him. He did not want to work in a factory because “that was too sweaty and dirty”. Finally, he said that he would like for me to help him get a job driving a bread truck. I still remember him saying that he “thought it would be pretty cool” to be driving around town in a step van.

Mark returned to pick up his Food Stamps the following month. We again small talked and were friendly with one another. This time he was the one to pop the question to me. “How are you doing with the job search?” I told him “I haven’t done anything.” To which he responded “Well, why not?” I responded straight and told him “You’re too picky.” “What do you mean I’m too picky?” “You won’t work in a factory.” Without hesitation, Mark responded with sincerity “I’ll work in a factory.”

I did not get him a job. I got him an interview. I called an HR officer whom I knew personally, and she set him up an interview with a line foreman who was hiring. Mark won the job opportunity. Then each week, I received a telephone call from the HR Manager. “This guy is shining on the job.” “He’s outperforming everyone else.” “He is really impressing his supervisor.” Thirty days later when I ran into Mark I told him how proud I was of him and his accomplishments. I told him that I wanted to take him to lunch as a way of letting him know how impressed that I was.

For the first time, I then saw a very different side of Mark. This tough guy was totally uncomfortable at the thought of going into a restaurant. He was self-conscious about going into restaurants. He believed that people were always looking at him in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. While I was able to persuade him to let me take him to lunch, he was truly paranoid during lunch, constantly shifting his glance to all of the tables around us to see who was looking at him. He had no idea that the way in which he shifted his glance from table to table actually caused people to stare at him. Mark showed me the power of self-fulfilling prophecies, how anticipating how others will react to you and reacting in anticipation actually caused others to do the very thing that he was concerned that they would do.

Mark kept that job for a year and then I heard that he lost his job. Interestingly, he never returned to apply for Food Stamps again. Then ten years later, I was working in another county and commuting to work. It was 6:00 a.m. and I was picking up a cup of coffee at a local convenience store to stay awake for my two hour commute. There was Mark, dressed in regular work a day clothes. What was he doing? He was on his way to work at a local factory. Mark had changed his life. He was a regular workaday Joe.

Thanks to Mark and others, I now see the welfare system completely differently. Those who get stuck on assistance are not there because they want to be. They are there because they have become stuck in a rut, in reacting in a dysfunctional way to the way in which they are treated in this world. Mark’s reaction of anger and hostility is the less common one. He used to drive those with critical judgments crazy with the comment “Why should I work when I can get Food Stamps!” The other more common reaction to critical judgments is to withdraw, lose their self-esteem and self-worth, and become depressed. While both patterns of behavior are dysfunctional, they are reactions to how people are treated in the world.  The general public’s critical judgments of those receiving assistance can be seen as self-fulfilling prophecies with Golem effects too.  I am reminded of the biblical quote “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Perhaps like in the times of Jesus we too still often do not “know” what we do.

Who do you know who would be interested in learning how to create self-fulfilling prophecies with a Pygmalion (positive) effect and how to avoid unintentionally creating those which create a Golem (negative) effect? Do you know anyone who would be interested in learning how to use self-fulfilling prophecies to unleash employee performance and create a competitive advantage for their organization? Send us an e-mail so we can explore how our company can assist you in this endeavor.

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