The Pygmalion Effect: We Get What We Expect
Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” His quote illustrates the power of self-fulfilling prophecies, which is at the core of something called the Pygmalion Effect.
Researchers and practitioners have found that people tend to perform up (or down) to the level that others expect of them. If the leader of a team conveys positive belief and expectations in her team, positive results will likely occur (that is the Pygmalion Effect). The opposite is also true: if the leader projects a lack of belief and negative expectations in her team, negative results are likely to occur (that is called the Golem Effect). Understanding and applying the Pygmalion Effect is very important to our success and that of our teams.
It Starts With the Manager
Managers and leaders need to believe they have the ability to inspire, develop and positively influence their teams (the effect of believing in yourself is called the Galatea Effect). Harvard professor J. Sterling Livingston explained: “What managers believe about themselves subtly influences what they believe about their subordinates, what they expect of them, and how they will treat them. If they have confidence in their ability to develop and stimulate subordinates to high levels of performance, they will expect much of them and treat them with confidence that their expectations will be met. But if they have doubts about their ability to stimulate subordinates, they will expect less of them and will treat them with less confidence.”
We also need to make sure we believe in the potential of our teams and the individual members. Consider questions such as “Do I believe that team member skills and performance can be improved with effort? Do I believe that team members can be inspired to make that effort?” I would suggest that virtually all people have untapped potential and can be even more successful. Author Brad Smith put it this way: “A leader’s job is not to put greatness into people, but rather to recognize that it already exists, and to create an environment where the greatness can emerge and grow.”
The first significant research on the Pygmalion Effect was completed by Harvard researcher Robert Rosenthal in educational settings. He found (and subsequent researchers validated) that, “When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” As leaders, we get what we expect and will consciously and subconsciously act in ways to help make the expectations happen.
Strategies to Apply the Pygmalion Effect
How can we use the Pygmalion Effect to improve the confidence and performance of our teams?
- Set high expectations, but not too high. Business expert Charles Kettering emphasized, ”High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectations.” Our job as leaders is to clarify and set expectations so our teams know what success looks like. When we set high expectations that our teams buy into, everybody can work together to meet those expectations and feel good about the results that come. Research has shown that it is important for the expectations to have some stretch, but at the same time be realistic. Specifically, research by Harvard University and the University of Michigan found that the degree of motivation and effort rises until the expectancy of success reaches 50%, then begins to fall after that even though the expectancy of success continues to increase. The key to maximize motivation, effort, and performance is to have goals that are neither too easy or considered too hard (i.e., unrealistic) to attain.
- Give people a great reputation to live up to. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie recommended, “Giving others a great reputation to live up to.” As leaders, we can cast a vision of our teams being high performing and excelling, then actively work to help our teams own the vision and build a reputation they can be proud of.
- Use confident language. We can express our confidence to our teams that we believe they are qualified and able to meet the goals and expectations we have agreed upon. I’m sure you have had experiences like mine when a boss or someone we respect expresses confidence in us, and we rise to the occasion. Norman Vincent Peale once said, “People become really quite remarkable when they start thinking they can do things. When they believe in themselves they have the first secret of success.” We have the privilege to help people believe in themselves.
- Provide positive feedback and reinforcement. Esteemed management expert Michael LeBoeuf has identified what he terms the Greatest Management Principle in the World. The principle? “Things that get rewarded get done.” This is similar to what psychologists like BF Skinner have found and named “positive reinforcement” – if a behavior gets a favorable outcome or reward, that behavior will likely be repeated. As leaders, when we see individuals and teams meet or exceed expectations, let’s positively reinforce and reward with our words and our actions. Sincere words of praise cost little but can have great value. Adding positive actions (rewards) further reinforces the desired outcomes and behaviors. Rewards can be as simple as bringing in pizza, or more substantive such as handing out gift cards or bonuses.
- Celebrate achievements. One of my favorite principles is that “success breeds success.” When we take the time to celebrate achievements of our individuals and teams, it reinforces the accomplishments, builds confidence, and motivates people to want more of that success.
- Promote positive gatherings. We can set a positive example by using team meeting time to compliment and build the confidence of our folks. During team meetings, we can make time for people to share positive accomplishments they are proud of. We can also encourage team members to compliment and express appreciation to others – both privately and in team meetings.
- Wipe the slate clean. Do any of you ever make mistakes? Me too. Mistakes can provide great learning opportunities. I like the sentiment expressed by Michael Alter (president of Sure Pay) when he stated, “Mistakes are the tuition you pay for success.” And the great basketball coach John Wooden said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.” Repeated careless mistakes need to be dealt with, but proactive mistakes should be used as learning opportunities, and then forgiven and the slates wiped clean.
- Train and coach. To help our teams reach the expectations we are striving for, we need to ensure that our folks have the skills and abilities needed. It’s up to us to proactively get the training our folks need, and provide encouraging coaching along the way. I resonate with this quote from Virgin CEO Richard Branson: “Train your people well enough so they can leave; treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” We can tap into available training provided by our companies’ HR departments, and supplement with additional training as helpful. It’s also valuable to cover technical and “hard skill” training, along with “soft skill” training, covering topics like effectiveness, relationship building, and time management.
Pygmalion expert and University Professor Dov Eden sums up by saying, “Leaders get the performance they expect.” Let’s expect great things from our teams and enjoy the success that follows.
Related story: Continuous Improvement: The Path to A Better Future
Wes Friesen is a proven leader and developer of high performing teams and has extensive experience in both the corporate and non-profit worlds. A former in-plant manager, he is also an award-winning university instructor and speaker, and is the president of Solomon Training and Development, which provides leadership, management and team building training. His book, Your Team Can Soar! contains 42 valuable lessons that will inspire you, and give you practical pointers to help you—and your team—soar to new heights of performance. Your Team Can Soar! can be ordered from Xulonpress.com/bookstore or wesfriesen.com. Wes can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.