If we’re lucky, most of us will be able to recall a manager who had a positive influence on our careers. When we ask ourselves why we considered them to be such great managers, we might recall factors such as excellent training, useful feedback, effective communication, or ongoing support. What we might not consider, however, is the powerful role that their expectations played in influencing our self-belief and performance on the job.

The idea that we all tend to live up to the expectations of others is known as the Pygmalion Effect, named after the Greek mythological character that inspired George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. In the musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins insists he can take a working-class flower girl and, with some training, pass her off as a “lady” of high society. Although he succeeds, a key lesson is explained by the trainee, Eliza Doolittle, to Higgins’ friend Pickering:

shutterstock_58334920“You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking and so on), 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.”

Adapting our behavior to meet the expectations of others begins early on in our lives. Rosenthal’s 1968 classroom study provides one of the most famous examples of this. In it, teachers were given the names of students who showed high potential for academic excellence. In actuality, the students were chosen completely at random. When the students were tested eight months later, they scored significantly higher than their classmates. Why? Because the teachers subconsciously increased their opportunities to learn and gave them more feedback and positive attention.

A little cute girl in a yellow dress reading a book sitting on the floor by Tatiana Bobkova

In much the same way, the power of the Pygmalion Effect has been demonstrated in organizational settings, with employees adapting their behavior and level of performance to meet the expectations set by their manager and the organization. The effect can be summarized with the following considerations:

  • Managers hold certain perceptions of their employees’ capabilities and constantly communicate these expectations both verbally and non-verbally. Even if they’re not aware of it, subtle cues, such as tone of voice, eye contact, and body language can convey attitudes and expectations in a powerful way.
  • As humans, we’re surprisingly skilled at picking up on these signals, and we use them to gain an understanding of how we’re expected to perform.
  • This takes the form of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we adapt our behavior to meet these expectations.

When managers believe in the potential of their team members, they act in accordance and will take responsibility for strengthening their self-confidence, developing their capabilities, and increasing their performance.

Silhouettes of children diving from the bow of a boat by oneinchpunch

When the opposite is true, managers are often quick to blame poor performance on an employee’s “innate” lack of ability. Going forward, they treat their employees with low expectations and continue to “prove” themselves right every time the employee underperforms. This vicious, self-reinforcing cycle is referred to as the “Golem Effect.”

While there are certainly other factors that affect employee performance (such as skills, education, life experiences, etc.), Pygmalion leadership training has been found to be one of the most effective interventions for encouraging high performance. Here are 5 ways to maximize its benefits:

1. Start Afresh and Expect the Best

Regardless of what you know of employees’ previous performance, it’s important to wipe the slate clean, start anew, and give everyone the chance to make a change. Cultivate a culture where excellence is expected, by modeling excellence every day.

2. Set High (But Realistic) Goals

Goals that are too low are not motivating, nor are goals that are unrealistically high. Instead, aim to create “stretch” goals — ones that are slightly out of an employee’s comfort zone but that have a high probability of success.

3. Provide Support

After setting ambitious goals, it’s important to provide support to help employees achieve them. Prove your genuine commitment by figuring out the role you can play in ensuring their success. What kind of support will they benefit from? They might require skills or knowledge training, workplace mentoring, or something more abstract, such as greater incentives to stay motivated.

Young boy learning to ride bicycle as father teaches him by Warren Goldswain

4. Communicate Positive Messages to Other Employees

When you speak about your team members to other employees, focus on the positive by pointing out their strengths and potential. The way we speak about others can shape opinions and expectations in a powerful way.

5. Give Positive and Developmental Feedback

Given the fact that praise can have a real impact, and doesn’t cost us a thing, it’s surprising how little we do it. If an employee does a good job, make sure they’re aware of it so that they know what to repeat and improve upon in the future.

If an employee has failed a task, seek to understand what they’re struggling with and what they need in order to succeed. The way we react to failings is one of the most powerful ways we can communicate our expectations to others. By signalling that we fully believe in our employees’ abilities to succeed, we set a clear, positive expectation and encourage them to start believing in themselves.

Expect great things from your team, provide the appropriate support, and be prepared to see happier employees and improved performance in return.

Have you applied Pygmalion techniques in your role as a leader? How did it affect performance? Tell us about your approach in the comments below!

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Top Image: A bored office worker sitting behind a large stack of paperwork by Stokkete