Leadership

The Powerful Pygmalion Effect in the Workplace

Our beliefs about our colleagues can have very real consequences, regardless of whether they’re correct or not. Most people are aware of the idea of a self-fulling prophecy, where our expectations about our  behaviour influence us to take actions that make the expectation a reality. However, there are also other-imposed prophecies where another person’s expectations of us can influence our behaviour.

Our beliefs about our colleagues can have very real consequences, regardless of whether they’re correct or not.

Leaders can use the principle of other-imposed prophecies in the workplace to influence those around them. This has been labelled the Pygmalion effect, named after the Greek myth in which a sculptor creates a beautiful ivory statue of a woman and then proceeds to fall in love so deeply with the statue that it brings her to life. The moral of the myth is that our expectations alter reality because they change our behaviour.

The Pygmalion effect has the power to result in positive outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly outlines this effect and the powerful impact leaders can have on their staff when they have and communicate their high expectations. The article states that some leaders have a Pygmalion style of leadership where they create peak performers by virtue of their expectations.

How can our expectations influence another person’s performance?

When it comes to workplace performance, the Pygmalion effect is a simple recognition that an individual’s performance is influenced by the expectations that others have of them – especially the expectations of their supervisor. This is because when we have high expectation for our team members, it impacts our actions. If we think that someone is not able, capable, or interested, we will likely treat them in a way that affirms our beliefs.

The Pygmalion effect is a simple recognition that an individual’s performance is influenced by the expectations that others have of them.

What are the consequences of our expectations?

I saw a clear example of a negative self-fulling prophecy when I recently heard a supervisor complain about the lack of interest that a member on his team had in embracing an organizational change initiative. When I asked what steps they had taken to ensure that their team member was set up for success, they responded that they had not wasted their time explaining the reasons why the change was necessary because they knew from previous experiences that the person would not be receptive. This meant that the individual was left to flounder and feel overwhelmed, ultimately losing interest in the new initiative and confirming their supervisor’s expectations.

I have also been on the receiving end of the Pygmalion effect. Early in my career, one of my leaders asked me to join her on a project that I felt would be too difficult for me. I initially declined, but she expressed her belief that I was the person she wanted to work with and that I could learn what was needed. She spent extra time mentoring and guiding me, showed me patience, answered my questions, regularly checked in with me, and even offered validation for my small successes. The result was that I gained confidence and the necessary skills to do the work well. I have taken this experience to heart and remind myself that what we believe influences our actions and outcomes.

How can we make the most of the Pygmalion effect in our workplaces?

Create a positive mindset.

Taking this knowledge to heart means that when my mind has negative thoughts about someone, I try to replace those limiting beliefs with more positive expectations. Instead of This is too difficult for them, I remember, They have learned to do difficult tasks before; instead of They aren’t leadership material, I remind myself, They can learn the leadership skills they need to succeed in this endeavor.

Speak your positive expectations.

People need to hear our positive expectations, and we shouldn’t expect them to read our mind. People can’t live up to expectations that they aren’t aware of.

Give people opportunities.

The only way to know if someone is truly capable of something is to give them a chance to try – and to offer support along the way. When people fail, rather than thinking, I knew it! (or worse, saying “I told you so”) a more helpful course of action is to have a conversation. That way you can find out what went wrong and give them another chance to learn from their mistake by developing a concrete plan to move forward.

By understanding the power of our expectations, we can develop the people around us.

Capitalizing on the positive power of the Pygmalion effect means that we look for the potential and the strengths in others – not their faults or downfalls. It also means intentionally communicating the positive traits we see and challenging people so they have a chance to stretch themselves. By understanding the power of our expectations, we can develop the people around us rather than undermine their potential for learning and growth.


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Author

Wendy Loewen

Managing Director – ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

Wendy is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This books is available on our website.

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