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.”
|Pygmalion Effect||The Pygmalion Effect, also known as the Rosenthal Effect, is a psychological phenomenon where higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. Individuals or groups tend to live up to the positive or negative expectations others have of them, creating self-fulfilling prophecies.|
|Origin||The term “Pygmalion Effect” is derived from George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” and it was first systematically studied in psychology by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in their 1968 book, “Pygmalion in the Classroom.”|
|Self-Fulfilling Prophecy||The Pygmalion Effect exemplifies a self-fulfilling prophecy, where beliefs or expectations about a person or group influence their behavior, causing those beliefs or expectations to come true.|
|Expectation||Expectations play a central role in the Pygmalion Effect. They can be explicit (verbalized beliefs) or implicit (demonstrated through actions). Higher expectations often result in better performance, while lower expectations can lead to poorer performance.|
|Teacher-Student Dynamics||The Pygmalion Effect is extensively studied in education. Teachers holding high expectations for students often lead to better student performance due to increased support, positive feedback, challenging curriculum, and improved teacher-student relationships.|
|Impact on Education||The Pygmalion Effect highlights the substantial influence educators have on student outcomes through their beliefs and expectations. Effective teachers maintain high expectations, fostering a positive learning environment, while low expectations can perpetuate achievement gaps.|
|Workplace||The Pygmalion Effect applies to the workplace. When managers have high expectations for employees, they often perform better, take on more responsibilities, and exhibit increased motivation. Low expectations, conversely, lead to underperformance and decreased morale.|
|Rosenthal and Jacobson Study||A seminal study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson demonstrated the Pygmalion Effect in an elementary school. They falsely informed teachers that certain students were “academic bloomers,” resulting in those students showing significant academic improvement. This study underscored the impact of expectations.|
|Factors Influencing Expectations||Expectations are influenced by various factors, including personal experiences, stereotypes, cultural biases, and nonverbal cues. These factors can lead to the formation of high or low expectations for others, impacting their outcomes.|
|Confirmation Bias||Confirmation bias can amplify the Pygmalion Effect. Once expectations are set, individuals tend to interpret information in ways that confirm those expectations, reinforcing the effect. It leads to selective attention to information aligning with existing beliefs.|
|Ethical Considerations||Leveraging the Pygmalion Effect raises ethical concerns. Setting expectations unrealistically high or using it to favor certain individuals can be unfair and unethical. Responsible use involves acknowledging biases, providing equal opportunities, and fostering a positive environment for all.|
|Leadership||In leadership, high expectations from leaders can lead to improved team performance. Communicating confidence in the team’s abilities and setting challenging goals can enhance motivation and achievement. Conversely, low expectations may result in decreased motivation.|
|Communication||Effective communication is vital in leveraging the Pygmalion Effect positively. Clear expression of high expectations, along with continuous feedback and support, helps individuals or teams meet these expectations. Open communication reduces misunderstandings and improves outcomes.|
|Training and Development||The Pygmalion Effect highlights the importance of investing in training and development programs that focus on enhancing skills and competencies. Providing growth opportunities and conveying high expectations can lead employees to develop and excel in their roles.|
|Cultural Factors||Cultural norms and values play a role in shaping expectations. Certain cultures may hold specific traits or behaviors in high regard, leading to expectations aligned with cultural values. Awareness of cultural influences is essential to avoid bias.|
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:
- First, the beliefs and expectations of Person A affect their interaction with Person B.
- Then, this interaction influences the beliefs or expectations that Person B considers true about themselves.
- In turn, these beliefs or expectations impact Person B’s performance.
- Once the performance of Person B has been impacted, the initial beliefs and expectations of Person A have been verified.
- 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:
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.
Pygmalion Effect Vs Hawthorne Effect
The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon that describes how expectations modify behavior or performance.
Similarly, the Hawthorne Effect tends to change a person’s behavior due to an awareness of being observed.
Just like the Pygmalion effect can be used in business to encourage strong leadership and higher employee performance, the Hawthorne Effect might help enhance ideation, leadership, and collaboration in young companies.
Pygmalion effect examples
To understand how the Pygmalion effect works in business, let’s start with one of the most comprehensive illustrations of how managerial expectations impact employee productivity.
Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (MetLife)
In 1961, district manager Alfred Oberlander decided to conduct an experiment after he made two observations:
- Exemplary insurance companies grew faster than average or poor companies, and
- New insurance employees performed better in these exemplary companies than they did in average or poor companies – irrespective of their sales aptitude.
Based on these observations, Oberlander placed his best insurance agents under one unit to encourage high performance and also to provide an environment where new recruits would be challenged. He then assigned staff such that:
- The six best employees worked with his best assistant manager.
- Six average employees worked with an average assistant manager, and
- The remainder, or those with the least output, worked with the least able manager.
Once all team members were assigned, Oberlander asked the group containing the six best employees to produce 66% of the volume achieved by the entire company the previous year.
What happened next?
Individuals in the team tasked with producing 66% of the insurance company’s output were called “super staff” by their counterparts.
They also exhibited what is known as esprit de corps, or a collective feeling of pride and mutual loyalty.
After the first 12 weeks, output from this group far surpassed even the most optimistic expectations. This proved that groups with superior ability could be motivated to perform at levels far beyond normal output when average and poor performers were removed from the scenario.
With organizational performance up by 40%, Oberlander repeated the process in 1962 and 1963.
More assistant managers were appointed and matched with subordinates of a similar productive capacity.
The average group anomaly
The six average employees who were assigned to an average assistant manager proved to be somewhat of an anomaly.
Oberlander found that the performance of this group increased significantly because of a healthy dose of competition.
In other words, the manager in charge of the average unit refused to believe that she was less capable than her colleague in charge of the super staff. She also countered that the super staff themselves were not any more talented than her own.
During communication with the group, she challenged her subordinates to outperform the super staff.
She insisted they had the potential to do so provided they did not see their relative lack of experience selling insurance as an obstacle.
Over the years Oberlander’s experiment ran, the average cohort increased its performance by a higher percentage than the employees containing the six best salespeople.
However, it should be noted that it could not match the sales generated by the more experienced group in dollar terms.
The poor-performing employees
Despite the beneficial outcomes seen in the first two groups, it was observed that managers nevertheless found it easier to communicate low expectations than they did high expectations.
At the MetLife district office where Oberlander worked, one manager from a low-output group believed subordinates had zero chance of performing well.
He tried to hide this expectation, but it became evident in his actions and demeanor and some employees resigned as a result.
Over time, employees who were assigned to that manager’s unit believed they were poor performers and expected to be terminated.
- Leadership and Employee Performance:
- Expectations: A manager believes that a new employee has significant potential to excel in their role.
- Behavior: The manager provides guidance, mentorship, and challenging opportunities to the employee.
- Performance: The employee consistently exceeds performance targets and takes on leadership roles.
- Confirmation: The employee’s outstanding performance validates the manager’s initial expectations, reinforcing a cycle of high performance.
- Workplace Promotion:
- Expectations: An employee is promoted based on the belief in their leadership abilities.
- Behavior: The promoted employee takes on new responsibilities with confidence and decisiveness.
- Performance: The employee excels in the leadership role, leading the team to achieve significant goals.
- Confirmation: The employee’s success in the leadership position validates the initial expectations, demonstrating the power of positive beliefs in leadership potential.
- Managerial Leadership:
- Expectations: A manager has high expectations for the capabilities of their team members.
- Behavior: The manager encourages the team to take on challenging projects, fosters a culture of innovation, and provides resources for skill development.
- Performance: The team consistently delivers high-quality work, meets deadlines, and exceeds client expectations.
- Confirmation: The team’s outstanding performance affirms the manager’s expectations, contributing to a positive work environment and reinforcing the cycle of excellence.
- Team Collaboration and Innovation:
- Expectations: A team leader believes in the creative potential of their team members.
- Behavior: The leader encourages brainstorming sessions, values diverse ideas, and provides a safe space for risk-taking.
- Performance: The team consistently generates innovative solutions, leading to the development of new products or services.
- Confirmation: The team’s successful innovations validate the leader’s initial belief in their creativity, fostering a culture of continuous innovation.
- Sales Team Performance:
- Expectations: A sales manager holds high expectations for the sales team’s abilities to meet ambitious sales targets.
- Behavior: The manager provides comprehensive training, sales tools, and motivational support.
- Performance: The sales team consistently achieves and surpasses sales quotas, resulting in increased revenue.
- Confirmation: The team’s exceptional sales performance validates the manager’s belief in their capabilities, motivating the team to maintain high standards.
- Customer Service Excellence:
- Expectations: A customer service manager believes that the support team can provide exceptional service.
- Behavior: The manager emphasizes the importance of customer satisfaction, encourages empathy, and provides training.
- Performance: The customer support team consistently receives positive feedback and resolves issues effectively.
- Confirmation: High customer satisfaction scores affirm the manager’s confidence in the team’s abilities, reinforcing a culture of excellent customer service.
- Innovation and Product Development:
- Expectations: A company’s leadership team believes in the innovative capabilities of their product development team.
- Behavior: The company allocates resources for research and development, encourages experimentation, and supports cross-functional collaboration.
- Performance: The product development team introduces groundbreaking products that capture market share.
- Confirmation: The team’s successful innovations confirm the leadership’s expectations, encouraging ongoing investment in innovation.
- Project Team Performance:
- Expectations: A project manager believes in the expertise of the project team.
- Behavior: The manager trusts team members to make decisions, assigns responsibilities based on strengths, and fosters open communication.
- Performance: The project is executed efficiently, meets all milestones, and exceeds client expectations.
- Confirmation: The project’s success affirms the manager’s belief in the team’s capabilities, promoting trust and collaboration in future projects.
- 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.
Pygmalion Effect Highlights:
- Definition: The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon in which higher expectations placed on an individual lead to an increase in their performance. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy where one person’s beliefs about another person’s behavior influence the outcome.
- Rosenthal-Jacobsen Study: In an elementary school study, students were identified as “intellectual bloomers” based on random IQ test results. Teachers’ expectations about these students led to their improved performance over time, highlighting the Pygmalion effect.
- Cyclical Process: The Pygmalion effect operates in a cycle:
- Person A has expectations for Person B.
- Person A’s behavior towards Person B is influenced by those expectations.
- Person B internalizes these expectations, affecting their performance.
- Person B’s performance confirms Person A’s initial expectations.
- Application in Business:
- Managing Expectations: Leaders should focus on employees’ potential, emphasizing strengths rather than weaknesses.
- Setting Ambitious Challenges: High standards and challenges empower employees and foster a culture of excellence.
- Using Positive Language: Compliments and positive reinforcement build trust and commitment.
- Pygmalion Effect vs. Hawthorne Effect:
- Pygmalion Effect: Expectations shape performance by influencing individuals’ behavior.
- Hawthorne Effect: People change their behavior when they know they are being observed.
- Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Example:
- Experiment Setup: Alfred Oberlander’s experiment at MetLife placed employees into different performance groups.
- Positive expectations led to increased productivity in the “super staff” group.
- A healthy competition environment boosted performance in the average group.
- Poor expectations resulted in lower performance and employee resignations in the low-output group.
- Key Takeaway: The Pygmalion effect highlights the impact of expectations on performance. It’s a powerful tool in business leadership that can be harnessed to encourage high performance by managing expectations, setting challenges, and using positive reinforcement.
Connected Thinking Frameworks