Use the Pygmalion Effect to Create a High Performing Team

“High expectations are the key to everything.”
– Sam Walton

The Pygmalion Effect Study

In the 1960s, Harvard psychology professor Robert Rosenthal teamed up with South San Francisco elementary school principal Lenore Jacobson to conduct what later became known as the Pygmalion Effect study.  In the study, 20% of the students within each of 18 elementary school classrooms were randomly assigned to a ‘high achiever’ group, with the remaining 80% serving as the control group. The teachers in those classrooms were told that these particular students in the ‘high achiever’ group had a superior IQ; even though the students were in fact chosen at random.  By the end of the year, the students who were randomly assigned to the ‘high achiever’ group showed significantly more intellectual growth in the form of increased IQ points than the control group.  In summarizing the book that Rosenthal and Jacobson co-authored about their study, James Rhem, executive editor for the online National Teaching and Learning Forum, said simply:

“When teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; when teachers do not have such expectations, performance and growth are not so encouraged and may in fact be discouraged in a variety of ways.”  

Later studies revealed that when teachers have higher expectations of students, they unconsciously give more positive attention, feedback, and learning opportunities to those students. This phenomenon of self-fulfilling expectations has come to be known as the Pygmalion Effect.

Marva Collins

Marva Collins, one of the most extraordinary educators of the 20th century, offers another example of the Pygmalion Effect in action.  In 1975, dissatisfied with the Chicago public school system, she decided to open her own school on the second floor of her home in inner-city Chicago. According to her official biography:

“She took the $5,000 balance in her school pension fund and began her educational program with an enrollment of her own two children and four other neighborhood youngsters. During the first year, Marva took in learning disabled, problem children and even one child who had been labeled by Chicago public school authorities as borderline retarded. At the end of the first year, every child scored at least five grades higher proving that the previous labels placed on these children were misguided. That little girl who had been labeled as border line retarded, graduated in 1976 from college Summa Cum Laude. Marva’s graduates have entered some of the nation’s finest colleges and universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, to mention just a few.”

Whereas the public system had largely written these students off as ‘learning disabled’, Marva had them studying books like Plato’s Republic and opining about the meaning of justice in modern society. Her belief in the capability of her students became a self-fulfilling prophecy that enabled them to achieve extraordinary results.

Pygmalion in Management

J. Sterling Livingston, a professor at Harvard Business School subsequently wrote an article called Pygmalion in Management, which was followed up with a number of studies and experiments.  The article and the studies illustrated that, just as with teachers and students,

“A manager’s expectations are key to a subordinate’s performance and development.”

When managers have high expectations of their team members, they tend to pay more attention to them, give them more context and set more ambitious goals for them. In addition, their high expectations are constantly communicated in subtle non-verbal cues, such as body language, facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, etc.  (Researchers have found that as much as 70% of communication is non-verbal.) Human beings are remarkably skilled at consciously and unconsciously receiving these subtle, non-verbal signals of others’ feelings and expectations about them.  These cues then alter the way people see themselves and what they believe is expected of them. Leaders who believe in the potential of their team members bring out the best in their people by helping them believe in themselves, constantly challenging them to grow and supporting them along the way.

The Golem Effect (Pygmalion in Reverse)

Too often, managers have the exact opposite effect on their people; they are quick to judge and label a team member as an underperformer. They then relate to them with low expectations, and ‘prove’ themselves right when the employee delivers poor performance. The managers then pat themselves on the back for their astute judgment of people’s innate abilities and then go on labeling other underperformers, continuing the cycle. This reverse Pygmalion Effect has come to be known as the Golem Effect. If you’re one of those managers, I invite you to ask yourself, “would you rather be ‘right’ or maximize your chance of success?”

What’s the Right Level of Expectations?

Interestingly, the Pygmalion in Management article notes that “subordinates will not be motivated to reach high levels of productivity unless they consider the boss’s high expectations realistic and achievable. If they are encouraged to strive for unattainable goals, they eventually give up trying and settle for results that are lower than they are capable of achieving.”  So, the key is having extremely high expectations of your people, but not so high that they themselves don’t believe in them.

Scientific research by David McClelland at Harvard University and John Atkinson at University of Michigan demonstrated that the relationship of motivation to expectations varies in the form of a bell shaped curve.

The degree of motivation and effort rises until the probability of success reaches 50%, then begins to fall even though the probability of success continues to increase.

If you don’t think there’s enough of a chance of achieving the goal, you may get overwhelmed and lose motivation. Conversely, if you’re pretty sure you can achieve it, you won’t be motivated to bring your best effort.

Applying the Pygmalion Effect to Maximize Your Team’s Performance

Given that your expectations as a leader of your team member’s capabilities has a direct impact on their performance and development, here are a few ways you can maximize your team’s performance:

1.  Expect the best from your people.

As Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.”  Apparently, the same is true for whether you think other people can or can’t.

2.  Seek to understand your team member’s expectations about their own capabilities.

Since your team member’s effort and motivation is correlated to their expectations of their own capabilities, it’s important to understand what those are. You can inadvertently demotivate your team members if your expectations of them are either too high or too low. So, spend the time to get to know your people and understand how they view themselves and their potential.

3.  Train your leaders about the Pygmalion Effect, and ensure they expect the best from their team members. 

A Psychology Today article entitled Can Leadership Be Developed? (yes!) noted that a recent meta-analysis (a statistical analysis that combines the results of studies) found that Pygmalion leadership training was the most effective leadership development intervention. Make sure your executive team is aware of the Pygmalion Effect, and encourage them to expect the best from their teams.

4.  Help team members set goals that they believe they have a 50% chance of achieving.

Goals that are too easy aren’t motivating, and nor are goals that seem unrealistic. Too often, when leaders set goals and timelines with their team members, they simply go back and forth and then make a decision, without any discussion of perceived probability of success. When the goals or timelines are later missed, it’s revealed that the team member agreed to a goal they themselves believed they had a very low probability to achieve (usually in an effort to please their boss).  Instead of letting these assumptions remain implicit, have a direct conversation about your team member’s perceived probability of success (perhaps under different scenarios or timelines), and encourage them to set goals that they have a 50% chance of achieving.

5.  As team members achieve their stretch goals, expect more from them and encourage them to believe in themselves.

Expectations are dynamic, and if you can create an upward spiral where your people learn to believe in themselves and expect more from themselves, their performance and motivation will continue to increase over time as they take on more challenging tasks and responsibilities.

Great leaders believe in the potential of their people, and help them become all they are capable of being. To create a high-performing team, you must have high expectations of your team members, believe in their ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and help them set stretch goals. They might just surprise you, and themselves.



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