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In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was an artist who fell in love with one of his ivory sculptures of a woman and prayed to the gods to give her life. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, feeling pity for Pygmalion, granted his request. Looks familiar? The tale is the origin of many stories, from Pinocchio to the 80s cult classic, Model.
Well beyond the pop culture references, the real-world application of the story has been the subject of numerous studies. This resulted in the concept of the Pygmalion Effect – the theory that positive expectations can influence an individual or group toward positive performance. Additionally, negative expectations may motivate them to perform negatively. Understanding and adopting this concept as a leader can have a significant impact on organizational performance.
Research on the Pygmalion effect
Some of the earliest research, published by Rosenthal and Jacobson in 1968 in Urban Review, began to link the impact of positive and negative expectations to individual and group performance. The main research focused on a primary school where students first underwent an intelligence pre-test. Then, based on these results, students were grouped by high scores and low scores and assigned to teachers. Teachers were informed of the students they were receiving. Specifically, whether they received students with the highest or lowest potential for intellectual growth. Eight months later, students were tested and the results were aligned with student assignments. The high-ability students showed a growth of 12.22 in their IQ, while the low-ability group showed a growth of 8.42. The authors argue that the results correspond to teachers’ expectations of groups of students. If you haven’t figured it out yet, there is a caveat. The students were not assigned based on their intelligence pre-test scores, but rather randomly.
Rosenthal and Jacobson’s research methods have been the subject of debate. But similar results have been published by other organizations/settings, including the US Air Force Preparatory School and the Hellenic Open University.
J. Sterling Livingston and Pygmalion in management
Giving further credence to this concept, J. Sterling Livingston published the article Pygmalion in management in the Harvard Business Review in 1988. His writings focused on managerial expectations and cited data related to a sales team’s performance relative to its grouping: low, medium, high. When the top performers were brought together, the team exceeded expectations. But even new team members performed better than existing and new members of average and low-performing teams. In fact, the performance of the low-performing group declined overall due to a high attrition rate.
Livingston also pointed out that what was initially seen as an anomaly, that the average team was growing above expectations, had identifiable causes. The research found that the average group leader refused to believe that he or his team was less capable than the highest performing group. She regularly communicated these feelings to the team. The leader’s outward confidence in herself and her team is believed to have created an environment conducive to superior performance.
Examples abound throughout history of the leader’s impact on a team’s success, even when the expectations of most others were low. Examples such as the Miracle on Ice (the victory of the American Olympic hockey team over the Soviet Union in 1980), Caesar’s victory over the Gauls in 52 BC (outnumbered four to one), and the victory for Average Joe’s Gym over the Purple Cobras in American Dodgeball. Conference championship game (okay, maybe not true, but a great underdog story). We can probably all recall a memory or experience when an encouraging leader brought out the best performance in ourselves and our team, even in the face of many obstacles or challenges.
Applying the Pygmalion Effect as a Leader
Understanding and applying the Pygmalion Effect can be a critical, competitive advantage for leaders at all levels. Taking advantage of it means more than just believing in your employees. This requires the leader to outwardly express confidence in the team and its individuals, thereby increasing their belief that they can achieve greatness. It might also involve putting aside predetermined opinions. And sometimes even past performances to communicate with conviction that success is their destiny. It is quite possible that the previous poor performance of a competent employee did not benefit from the encouragement and confidence of his leader. And as a result, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.