The Pygmalion Effect in Business

In 1965 two researchers conducted a now-famous experiment in a public elementary school, dubbed Pygmalion in the classroom. The researchers told teachers that about one-fifth of their students were unusually intelligent (so-called “growth spurters”), based on results of a fictitious IQ test. Even though the gifted students were seemingly chosen at random, these students performed better in the classroom and later improved their scores on standardized IQ tests. The researchers theorized the teachers paid more attention to gifted students, offering them more support and encouragement than the others.

Fascinating. If you treat people as if they are smart, they become smarter. The Pygmalion Effect.

Only it may not be true. For the last 50 years, no one has really been able to replicate the study – one of the most important principles of the scientific method. In fact, some researchers claim the impact of high expectations in the classroom are significantly exaggerated while others even claim that the Pygmalion Effect is likely an illusion and the underlying research is “bad science.”

I’ll leave others to debate the science but I’ve certainly seen this effect in the business world. When a leader thinks an employee is capable, the leader usually gives the employee more opportunities to develop, and the employee’s performance often improves – creating a positive feedback loop. In parallel, if employees believe a leader is successful, the employees are more attentive and supportive – which likely improves the leader’s performance.

We could call this the Pygmalion Effect in business.

Writing this blog made me realize that the reverse of the Pygmalion Effect can be an issue. If a leader’s expectation of an employee is low, the leader will likely treat the employee (intentionally or unintentionally) in a way that will lead to poorer performance than the employee is capable of. In psychology, this is called the Golem Effect; the self-fulfilling prophesy that people live up (or, in this case, down) to expectations.

A truly great leader doesn’t just motivate their highest-potential employees but also makes sure that other employees aren’t stigmatized with the badge of low expectations. The goal isn’t to get someone to do something they aren’t capable of but rather to ensure that everyone believes they have an opportunity to meet their own full potential.  As Henry Ford is credited for saying,

Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.

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One Response to The Pygmalion Effect in Business

  1. Jeff Winter November 26, 2018 at 4:38 am #

    Jonathan – agree more with your point that the Pygmalion Effect exists in business. Also interesting is a sort of Pygmalion effect for new managers / taking over a team. It is very difficult to not be biased by previous managers’ / others’ opinions of your new team members. In my experience, most / many of the highly rated people I have inherited are, in fact, deserving of the praise. What’s often the case is the presence of “hidden gems”: employees who for various reasons flew under the radar, simply didn’t connect with the previous manager, or perhaps had a “strike” against him/her for which they never or were never allowed to recover in the eyes of their manager.

    It’s also just fun to say the word “Pygmalion.”

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