Managing performance: The Pygmalion Effect of Leadership

“OK, that was not good. I want you try it again…with passion. This time, I want to feel what you believe, rather than hear what you believe. I want you to forget what you have learned the content to be and give to me raw, what you believe in about the content of your presentation”, I said. “I know you can do this”.

The turnaround was amazing. From a stilted presentation that was hard to listen to and harder to believe – let alone get excited about – to a presentation that was passionate, gripping, and held my attention for every moment, even though I knew the content intimately. Our consultant had just become a presenter. Prior to this, she had been willing, but unable. Afraid of the audience and self-critical of each word as it came from her mouth, she was afraid of presenting.

I knew she had the capability and the capacity to present. In the office, when she strayed on to a topic that she was passionate about, she could easily hold the room.

Without provocation and guidance on what she had to do to present well, she would never have crossed the Rubicon of fear of presenting in large groups of intelligent people, who held opinions about the content she was delivering.

A “Good Effort” from me, on the other hand, delivered without conviction and no intent to use her as a presenter and develop her into a facilitator as she gained experience, would have left her underwhelmed and lacking even more in confidence.

Worse still, would be if I used extreme language and suggested that she ‘always looked nervous’ or ‘never engaged her audience’, or if I used a label like ‘stupid’ or ‘useless’. The end result would have been not only a lack of confidence on herself, but also a justifiable lack of confidence in me as her manager.

When we have expectations of people and communicate them, more often than not those expectations will be met. If they are not met, we can generally be assured that the people’s behaviour and attitude is much more positive than when we do not have expectations or do not communicate them.

Not only that, the more we – as leaders – engage our people in learning activities, the higher our expectations become and, in turn, our people engage in more learning behaviour.

Pygmalion Effect

The effect of setting high expectations on people, coined the Pygmalion effect, was first postulated in a study of teachers’ impact on students (Rossenthal & Jacobson, 1968). In the study, students at an elementary school took intelligence pre-tests. Rosenthal and Jacobsen then informed the teachers of the names of twenty percent of the students in the school who were showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth” and would bloom academically within the year. Unknown to the teachers, these students were selected randomly, with no relation to the initial test. When Rosenthal and Jacobson tested the students eight months later, they discovered that the group of randomly selected students scored significantly higher.

In the workplace, a study on the Israeli defence forces (Eden, 1992) revealed two effects of setting expectations:

  1. Leadership mediates the Pygmalion effect. Raising manager expectations improves leadership, which in turn promotes subordinate performance.
  2. Managers allocate leadership resources to subordinates in proportion to their expectations.

The implications of the first effect are that setting expectations, and setting them high, improves our leadership capabilities and our people’s performance.

The implications of the second effect were reported as, “Evidently, high expectations bring out the best leadership in a manager. This suggests the hypothesis that if managers would treat all their subordinates to the same quality leadership that they lavish upon those of whom they expect the most, all would perform better”.

Creating a Pygmalion Effect in the Workplace

So what does this mean for us, as leaders in the workplace? How do we motivate ourselves to become better leaders by setting higher expectations?

Remove negative expectations of performance

As leaders we need to remove any cultural, personal, gender, age or other stereotypes we and our peers might hold.

When I was General Manager of Shell Fiji, I lost count of the number of times I was told what Fijians could not do. Ad-nauseum I heard about it being almost impossible for Fijians to arrive on time, to deliver against their goals and be capable of complex thinking. Hogwash! Refusing to accept the cultural crutch of ‘Fiji Time’ in the workplace and setting different cultural expectations in the workplace was the beginning for a tremendous growth phase in the business and the people.

It is imperative that we start with the premise that people can do almost anything with the right leadership and support.

Wipe the slate clean

If there has been a history of underperformance in individuals, it is important to consign discussion about those performances to the dustbin of history. Give everyone the chance to make a change to find their purpose and understand their responsibilities and what is expected of them in terms of performance.

Set high expectations

Don’t aim low or set small incremental gains in performance. When people are given incremental performance improvement targets, there is a high risk that their thinking will fit the norms of ‘work harder’, when what is definitely needed is ‘work smarter’. When people are given seemingly difficult goals, it forces them to think differently, especially if we help them with that different thinking.

Set the right expectations

Setting expectations of people can have a negative effect if we set the wrong ones, so some careful analysis and thinking is required before we set off on our journey of getting people to achieve things they thought were not possible. The law of unintended consequences applies to everyone setting performance indicators and goals.

For example, when I ran a production centre, the prevailing goal for staff involved in blending, filling and warehousing products was to achieve a minimum productivity rate. Initially, I set higher productivity targets. They responded and achieved higher productivity but at the expense of medium and small runs of products, which were slower to blend and fill. They constantly ran out of stock. Customers and the marketing team were always unhappy, extra stocks were held ‘just in case’ and the warehouse was too small to house the increase in inventory we carried. When I changed the goal on reflection to having low levels of out of stocks, productivity actually improved, all stakeholders were happier and the warehouse space required reduced by more than 25%.

Train and coach our people to be self-efficacious

After setting our ambitious goals, it is important that we support our staff in being able to reach these goals. This may include skills or knowledge training and workplace coaching or mentoring. Our people must feel it is very important to try and that we will support them through a few missteps and, where necessary, assist directly in building their skills.

Give feedback

Even our most able and most willing people, who need little skill or knowledge building, need feedback on how they are doing. Even if they seem embarrassed by positive feedback, it is crucial that people who have accepted the challenge of higher expectations feel that warm inner glow of having delivered something difficult.

For those who are struggling, we must at first give positive feedback on their level of effort and give constructive feedback on how they can improve their performance.

Works Cited

Eden, D. (1992). Leadership and expectations: pygmalion effects and other self-fulfilling prophecies in organisations. Leadership Quarterly, 3(4) , 271-305. .

Rossenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

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