The forgotten lesson about leadership – the Pygmalion Effect

Summary: Examine your relationships at work – a manager might be unconsciously the reason for someone’s poor performance. Be aware of the Pygmalion Effect and don’t let it affect you and your teams.


In 1964, a gentleman called Robert Rosenthal, who was (and still is) a Harvard psychologist, conducted a clever experiment at an elementary school. What he found out should have had a profound effect on the way we perceive performance management, expectation setting and leadership. Yet I have not come across this person’s findings until recently – that might be my lacking education, but in case you have not heard Rosenthal’s name before, you should read on, as you might be a victim / an unconscious perpetrator of the Pygmalion Effect.

The original experiment at an elementary school in California started with Rosenthal administering a basic IQ test to the students. There was nothing rigged about the test itself – the whole fun came in later when Rosenthal told the teachers that in their classes they had a few (about 20%) ‘intellectual bloomers’ who were destined to excel academically; he also revealed the ‘bloomers’ names to the teachers.

Rosenthal came back after a year and administered the same IQ test on the same group of students and, as he had predicted, the ‘intellectual bloomers’ significantly improved their scores and also did remarkably well during the whole school year.

Here’s the thing, though – the ‘bloomers’ weren’t real.

Rosenthal picked the 20% of students randomly, not basing his choices on their initial IQ results. What his fascinating study revealed that the teachers subconsciously focused more of their energy on the ‘bloomers’, investing more of their time in helping them, providing them with feedback and generally having higher expectations of them, as in the teachers’ eyes they were the ones with the biggest potential for success.

Multiple studies replicated Rosenthal’s results in many different spheres – in the military, in businesses, at courtrooms and in other settings. It became obvious that if the supervisor thinks that their employee / trainee / subordinate has a huge potential or skills superior to others, the employees / trainees / subordinates perform better. It is a beautiful example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Credit: Dan Bishop / Discover
When I first read about the Pygmalion Effect – as that’s the name of the phenomenon that Robert Rosenthal uncovered – I immediately cast my mind back to the teams I have ever managed and tried to figure out whether my high expectations of someone resulted in their better performance; I also thought about those guys who I hadn’t trusted enough or supported enough as I was struggling to see their potential. Could my perception and the way I was treating them had been one of the causes why they were performing worse than my own ‘bloomers’?

Examine the working relationships you have in your life now. Whether you are a manager or are being managed by someone, the Pygmalion Effect is in my opinion crucial to your future. Look at your team consciously – how are you treating them? Do your expectations towards your team members differ from person to person? How much time are you spending on helping those who are subject to lower expectations from your end? Could your behaviour be thus the cause of their worse performance?

Evaluate yourself as an employee with the same kind of questions. Is my manager giving me difficult tasks, supporting me, assisting in my personal growth? Or is he / she not challenging me at all and am I just drifting at work in the ocean of low expectations that will inevitably turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy unless they are consciously grasped by both me and my supervisor?

One point that has to be mentioned here is that many of the experiments that tried to replicate Rosenthal’s results failed because of the fact that the teachers were told that they need to devote more energy to their students and consciously increase the level of the expectations that they had towards them. Only the attempts that did not disclose the nature of the experiment to the teachers – i.e. the ones where the teachers subconsciously thought that some of their students are more academically gifted – succeeded. So far – at least to my knowledge – it is therefore yet to be validated whether you can use the Pygmalion Effect in a controlled way, being aware of it and setting higher expectations based on it.

But even with this caveat, you still should be cognizant of how you affect your employee’s performance with your perception of them and their potential, as well as how your manager is influencing your outputs and what do they really expect of you. Without realising it, you might have been breeding an army of poor performers, just because you did not believe in their abilities. Think about it next time when you’re allocating work to your people. And as an employee, you should jump up and down if you’re not receiving complex tasks and being therefore able to control the other person’s expectations of you.

The bottom line is – be deeply aware of the Pygmalion Effect and make it work for you, not against you. Everybody will benefit from that.

If you’d like to read more about the Pygmalion Effect, I recommend this article: http://discovermagazine.com/2015/dec/14-great-expectations

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