Pygmalion Effect In A Nutshell

The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon where higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. The Pygmalion effect was defined by psychologist Robert Rosenthal, who described it as “the phenomenon whereby one person’s expectation for another person’s behavior comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Understanding the Pygmalion effect

To study the effect, Rosenthal joined forces with a Californian elementary school principal named Lenore Jacobsen. During the study, each student completed an IQ-test but the results were not disclosed to teachers. However, they were told the names of students who were identified as ‘intellectual bloomers’.

One year later, the students took the test again. While all managed to achieve a higher score, the students identified as more intellectual made the most progress. In other words, students who had higher expectations placed on them by teachers performed better. 

Teachers were more likely to pay closer attention to these students by providing in-depth feedback and continuing to challenge them. The mood and attitude of each teacher toward intellectual students were also hypothesized to be a contributing factor in high performance.

How does the Pygmalion effect work?

As noted by Rosenthal, the Pygmalion effect is a self-fulling prophecy. As a result, it is helpful to consider the effect as a cyclical process:

  1. First, the beliefs and expectations of Person A affect their interaction with Person B.
  2. Then, this interaction influences the beliefs or expectations that Person B considers true about themselves.
  3. In turn, these beliefs or expectations impact Person B’s performance.
  4. Once the performance of Person B has been impacted, the initial beliefs and expectations of Person A have been verified.
  5. At this point, the cycle begins again. During the interactions between Person A and Person B, certain beliefs and expectations are reinforced by Person A to get the desired result.

Best practices for using the Pygmalion effect in business

In business, it’s helpful to consider that employees are no different from the students in Rosenthal’s original study. The same mechanisms can be used to encourage high performance to further personal and professional goals alike.

Here are some best practices for use in a business setting:

  • Manage expectations. It’s important to note that the Pygmalion effect works both ways. While positive expectations contribute to high performance, negative expectations contribute to poor performance. Leaders should therefore seek to identify strengths in their team members and not dwell on weaknesses. Using the effect, this style of leadership primarily focuses on employee potential.
  • Set challenges that are ambitious. With the bar set high, overcoming these challenges increases a feeling of empowerment in employees. Leaders who set high standards are also likely to do everything they can to help someone else reach their goal. Ultimately, this enhances the culture of an organization.
  • Use positive language. Perhaps an obvious point, but one that bears repeating. Words are inherently powerful, so leaders should use them to their advantage. Complimenting the positive attributes of an employee is vital, particularly if they typically have a low opinion of themselves. This increases trust and commitment to the process in both parties.

Key takeaways

  • The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon that describes how expectations modify behavior or performance.
  • The Pygmalion effect can be thought of as a cyclical, self-fulfilling process between two parties. 
  • The Pygmalion effect can be used in business to encourage strong leadership and higher employee performance. Managing expectations and the setting of ambitious goals are crucial. Positive affirmation is also important as a means of increasing trust and buy-in.

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