How to Harness the Power of the Pygmalion Effect

by | Dec 23, 2019


“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” Source. This is known as the Pygmalion Effect and it is a type of “self-fulfilling prophesy.”

Pygmalion Effect in Education

The seminal study of the Pygmalion effect occurred in the late 1960s at an elementary school where the students took an intelligence test at the beginning of the year. The teachers were informed of the names of students who scored particularly well on the test. However, unbeknownst to the teachers, the names of the supposed high scorers were drawn randomly from the student body and had no correlation to actual achievement on the intelligence test. At the end of the year, all the students were tested on how much they learned and those who were labeled as exceptional at the beginning of the year scored significantly higher than the rest of the students.

The Pygmalion Effect has been replicated in studies in secondary school, high school, and even graduate school. For example, “10th grade students who had teachers with higher expectations were more than three times more likely to graduate from college than students who had teachers with lower expectations.” Source. In other studies, it has been found that low expectations can have a destructive self-fulfilling effect for some minorities or those from disadvantaged backgrounds. If they are expected to perform lower, they often do. Gender biases matter as well. Situations where teachers expect girls to better at reading and expect boys to be better at mathematics often generate that result.

Pygmalion Effect in Business

The Pygmalion Effect has also been found to occur in business settings. According to J. Sterling Livingston, a Harvard Business School Professor, “If a manager is convinced that the people in her group are first-rate, they’ll reliably outperform a group whose manager believes the reverse—even if the innate talent of the two groups is similar.” More from Prof. Livingston:

“Some managers always treat their subordinates in a way that leads to superior performance. But most … unintentionally treat their subordinates in a way that leads to lower performance than they are capable of achieving. The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them. If a manager’s expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor. It is as though there were a law that caused subordinates’ performance to rise or fall to meet managers’ expectations.”

-J. Sterling Livingston, The Pygmalion Effect in Management

Thus, our expectations of people matter and they are communicated both by our overt statements and actions but also with body language, attitude, and subconscious cues. According to Prof. Livingston, “If managers believe subordinates will perform poorly, it is virtually impossible for them to mask their expectations because the message usually is communicated unintentionally, without conscious action on their part.” The tough thing is that it is usually easier to communicate low expectations than high expectations.

How to Use the Pygmalion Effect Positively

Each of us who are managers can harness both the positive or negative aspects of the Pygmalion effect. As noted above, our real thoughts about people come through subconsciously, so we need to not just pay attention to what we say but also to what we actually think (which is hard). Here are some tips for reaping the positive benefits:

  • Evaluate your own feelings and expectations of your co-workers. What do you think of them? Do you believe they can achieve great things? If not, why not?
  • Everyone has one or more things that they do really well; their superpowers. What are these things? Help your co-workers discover their superpowers and then expect them to use them.
  • Adopt a growth mindset. People can grow and change positively so long as the growth is in alignment with their strengths. More on growth mindset: Can People Grow and Change?
  • note that high expectations must be achievable and realistic to generate high performance. Unrealistic expectations can backfire.
  • Employee performance is also affected by our own confidence as managers. Managers with higher confidence in their own abilities to manage and lead have been shown to have higher expectations of their teams than managers with lower confidence. So, develop your own skills by reading about managing and leadership. Greater knowledge will lead to greater confidence which will lead to higher expectations.

Where Did the Name Come From?

The name of this effect comes from the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who carved a statue of a beautiful woman and begged the gods to bring her to life, which they did. Playwright George Bernard Shaw adopted the title Pygmalion for a play whose theme was about how we treat people affects how they turn out. From the play: “the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will.”


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