The Pygmalion effect: expect the worst and we most likely will get it!


We have all heard of the “self-fulfilling prophecy“. One way to look at this idea is to say that “we get what we expect” and if we expect something to happen, our expectation will tend to make it so.

Our expectations often drive the events which occur, rather than the other way round. A leading researcher on this issue, Robert Rosenthal, labelled this expectancy effect the “Pygmalion effect” and if we are not all familiar with the Greek myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor, who fell in love with his own statue of a woman, many of us have seen the movie My fair lady, inspired by the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, where Professor Higgins sets out to transform a girl of modest origins, Eliza Doolittle, into a lady.

Rosenthal has researched this issue for many years and has come up with some interesting findings. In particular, he performed a study at an elementary school in a lower middle-class neighbourhood of a large US town. This experiment has been called the Oak School experiment. Simply put, with the agreement of the school administration, all the children in grades 1 to 6 were given a standard IQ TEST at the beginning of the school year. The teachers were told the test was the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition and that the test was designed to predict academic blooming. In other words, teachers were told that students scoring high on the test were ready to bloom academically and would progress in the coming year. If the test was a valid one, all the rest was not true and the test had no predictive nature whatsoever.

All the teachers subsequently received a list with the names of their students who had scored in the top 20% on the “Harvard Test”. Of course, the names provided were at random and the children in question had done no better than the other pupils forming part of the control population.

Near  the end of the year, all the children at the school took the test again and the degree of change in IQ was calculated for each child.  To summarize, the results showed that the children for whom the teachers had expected greater intellectual growth averaged significantly greater improvement than did the control children.

Rosenthal explains the differences in terms of teachers expectations. When teachers expect greater intellectual development from certain children, these children did show greater intellectual development.

Rosenthal defines 4 key factors which drive this Pygmalion effect:

1) Climate factor: teachers who expect more of certain students tend to create a warmer climate for those children, both verbally and non verbally (for example, they will smile moe often at them).

2) Input factor: teachers will tend to teach more material to children they think are smarter

3) Response opportunity factor: children who are expected to bloom academicallly get more chance to respond.

4) Feedback factor: if more is expected of a child, he/she gets praised more when he/she is right but gets more differentiated feedback when he/she makes a mistake. Children who are not expected to perform get less feedback when they are wrong because teachers would seem to think that the children in question would not understand the correction and so the teachers spend less time trying to correct them.

If you transpose these findings to the world of work, what conclusions can be drawn for high and low performers?

Obviously, managers have to question their role in generating performance through the expectations they develop in relation to different employees. If they expect more from certain employees (for example, those who have gone to certain universities or grad schools), their expectations will tend to drive the results they expect because they will create the climate, give more input, be available to listen more and above all give more differentiated feedback to help the employee for whom they hold high expectations.

On the other hand, they will tend to spend less time maintaining a favourable climate with workers for whom they have less expectations, give less feedback, make themselves less available to listen and finally, give less differentiated feedback to employees they deem to be struggling or not able to understand the feedback that is required to hep them progress.

In other words, some managers get the performance they expect and either consciously or unconsciously, adopt behaviours which may drive success for some but also drive failure in others.

The manager’s role is to drive better performance in all and so everyone in a management role should be alert to the Pygmalion effect and how preconceived notions and bias can perhaps deliver high performance in some (the so-called stars or A-players) while driving poor performance in others.

Simply put, if you are in a management role,seriously question your preconceived notions about team members. Be alert to how you behave towards all team members in terms of the climate you establish, the input you give to each team member, the response you give to each person in terms of support and coaching and how you give differentiated feedback to all. If you truly believe in team work and how 1+1+3, then you need to focus on how you can get more from all employees through higher and more positive expectations focused on all.

To conclude, the bad news is that our expectations as managers toward employees can drive both good and bad performance.

The good news is that we can drive good performance in all team members if we adopt the correct behaviours and if we have positive expectations for all team workers.

If poor expectations drives poor performance, positive expectations can and will drive good performance. Positive expectations are the key and this means trusting your employees more to deliver to your higher expectations. People will deliver more if you expect them to do so. Higher performance is a case of Greater expectations aimed at all employees be they Harvard graduates or employees of more humble background.

Check out the video which features Robert Rosenthal discussing the Pygmalion effect.

The Pygmalion effect

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One Response to “The Pygmalion effect: expect the worst and we most likely will get it!”

  1. Damiano Says:

    HI Joseph,
    I’ve just discovered your blog trough the Linkedin connection, quite interesting I’ll keep an eye on it,
    cheers,
    Damiano.

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