The Pygmalion effect, also known as the Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to higher performance. It can be best understood by a circle where our beliefs about another person’s abilities influence our actions towards the other person. This action has an impact on the other’s beliefs about themselves. The beliefs about themselves cause the other’s actions toward us which again reinforce our belief about that person. And so on and on and on. Let’s take a look at an example.
Imagine you are the coach of a basketball team and you observe your team on the first day. Chris and Paul are new members of your team. Chris reminds you of a famous player. Paul reminds you of an annoying boy from your high-school years. Unconsciously you decide what to expect from each one of them. Your beliefs influence your actions. When Chris enters the court you are happy to see him. When he plays, you push him to do better, practice harder, stay an extra hour. If he makes a mistake, you explain to him how to improve. When Paul comes in, you hardly notice him. You’re glad to see him score but you don’t give him much feedback and don’t invest extra time in his training. When Paul does a mistake, you are a little annoyed.
Your actions impact their beliefs about themselves. Chris feels you appreciate him and he appreciates you in return. He believes in his own success. Paul feels you have little patience and appreciation for him. He does not believe in his own success. Their beliefs about themselves cause their actions toward you. Chris finds more and more joy in playing and he never misses a training session. During the games, he gives a 100 % all the time. Paul finds less joy in playing than before and doesn’t give his full effort in the games. He starts to miss the training sessions sometimes.
This, in turn, reinforces your beliefs about them. You see how Chris enjoys playing, how he trains hard and shows a fast increase in his performance. Paul doesn’t seem to be very motivated, his skills don’t increase as much and he starts to show up less. You think your instincts were right.
The Pygmalion Effect At The Workplace
Meeting the expectations that others set for us is something that we have been taught to do right from the early years of our lives. Even at the workplace, an employee will adapt his or her behaviour and level of performance to meet the expectations set by their manager/team leader/organization.
Just like in the above example, the manager’s expectations from his or her employees can significantly influence their behaviour and performance. For this reason, managers need to understand this influence and harness it in the right direction to work towards organizational goals. They need to understand that underachievers grow accustomed to getting by with minimally acceptable performance simply because nothing more is expected of them. So instead of harnessing low expectations that could kick-start a negative spiral and lead to a low-performance index use a ‘can do’ approach which can turn the negative spiral into a positive one.
Imagine the power of The Pygmalion Effect if we apply this ‘can do’ management style to every member of the team.