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The Pygmalion Effect: How Can It Create Success in Your Team?

Being a leader means shouldering greater responsibility, which includes inspiring and enhancing your team’s performance. But how are you going to do that? Knowing about “The Pygmalion Effect” is one thing that can help you develop your leadership skills and become a true motivator of your team’s success.

If this is your first time hearing about the Pygmalion Effect, let me give you an example or two that you may have experienced or observed when you were younger. Have you ever noticed how a teacher’s belief in a student’s potential can influence that student’s performance? Or how a coach’s confidence in an athlete can push them to achieve more? Or how does a parent’s encouragement help a child get going on a bike for the first time? This isn’t just luck or good fortune; it’s the Pygmalion Effect in action. This powerful psychological principle can work wonders in the workplace, too.

But before we dive into the Pygmalion Effect — what it is, how it works, and how you can use it to drive your team’s success— let’s first consider an important point of great leadership and how it impacts the application of this principle.

You Control You

As a leader, you must develop awareness of your beliefs, values, and behaviors, because your actions, messages, body language– everything is a potential shaper of your team’s performance. Do you see your team as broken and flawed, filled with people who don’t measure up and make mistakes? Or do you see them as talented, strong, smart individuals with much to offer? Find an adjective that resonates with how you describe people willing to learn, do their best, and are committed to the purpose and the vision you represent (curious, learner, etc). 

Work on your belief system and consider what you think about others deep down. The way you were told the world works influences how you “label” and judge people. Therefore, you might need to work on reframing how you see your team, and humanity in general, to hold them with unconditional positive regard. The reality is, whatever you believe to be true about your team members, is what they will be. Daniel Siegel said it best: “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of being.”

So, are you prepared to try something new in your leadership and see how it impacts your team? Let’s talk about the Pygmalion Effect.

So, What is the Pygmalion Effect?

The Pygmalion Effect, also known as the Rosenthal Effect, is a psychological phenomenon where higher expectations lead to improved performance. Named after a Greek myth where Pygmalion, a sculptor, fell in love with a statue he created, this concept suggests that people internalize others’ expectations and perform accordingly.

The term gained traction from a 1960s study by psychologist Robert Rosenthal and school principal Lenore Jacobson. They experimented in an elementary school, randomly labeling some students as “intellectual bloomers.” These students, believed by their teachers to have high potential, actually showed significant academic improvement over the year, purely because the teachers expected them to excel. The study showed that when we believe in someone’s potential, our behavior changes towards them, which in turn influences their achievements. This concept could be one of the greatest tools to improve employees’ performances.

Pygmalion in Management

The term “Pygmalion in Management” was first introduced by J. Sterling Livingston in an article published in the Harvard Business Review in 1969. In the workplace, the Pygmalion effect can manifest in several ways. For example, if a manager believes an employee has leadership potential, they may give that employee more responsibilities and opportunities to develop their skills. This, in turn, can lead to the employee becoming a better leader.

Conversely, if a manager has low expectations for an employee, they may give that employee fewer opportunities and less challenging tasks. This can result in the employee feeling demotivated and less engaged in their work, the opposite of the Pygmalion effect will happen —  The Golem Effect. The low expectations from the manager cause the employees to fulfill those expectations, which leads to poor performance.

How Does the Pygmalion Effect Work?

The Pygmalion Effect works through a self-fulfilling prophecy mechanism:

  1. Expectation Setting: Leaders or managers develop expectations about their team members’ abilities and potential.
  2. Behavioral Change: These expectations influence how leaders treat their team members or subordinates. Positive expectations lead to supportive, encouraging, and motivating behavior. Negative expectations lead to failure, disappointments, and frustrations.
  3. Internalization: Team members pick up on these positive cues and start to believe in their potential and capabilities.
  4. Performance Improvement: This newfound confidence and motivation drive team members to perform better, thereby fulfilling the initial expectations.

How to Apply the Pygmalion Effect to Your Team

Now that we understand the “Pygmalion Effect” and how your expectations can shape your behavior and influence those around you, let’s remember that the Pygmalion Effect in your team isn’t about magic. It’s first about believing in the strengths and abilities of your team and then, creating an environment where high expectations are communicated and supported. Implementing the Pygmalion Effect is a powerful tool to enhance employee achievements and retention. Here are some effective ways to use it and benefit your team:

  1. Set High, Yet Achievable Goals
    • Communicate your high expectations. When you set high expectations, you are telling your team that you believe in them and their potential to achieve great things. However, ensure these goals are challenging yet realistic to avoid undue stress.
  2. Provide Constructive Feedback
    • Offer regular, specific, and constructive feedback. When you focus on strengths and provide actionable steps for improvement, team members feel empowered to grow and develop. When employees are given a chance to learn and grow and their leader shows confidence in their ability, they are more likely to stretch and perform at a higher level.
  3. Show Genuine Interest and Support
    • Demonstrate that you genuinely care about your team members’ success. Regular check-ins, active listening, and showing empathy can build trust and confidence. Celebrate small victories and show appreciation for their efforts.
  4. Celebrate Successes
    • Recognize and celebrate individual and team achievements. Acknowledging success publicly reinforces positive behavior and motivates the entire team to strive for excellence.
  5. Create a Positive Work Environment
    • Foster a work culture that promotes collaboration, innovation, and mutual respect. A positive environment amplifies the impact of high expectations and helps team members feel valued and supported.
  6. Lead by Example
    • Exhibit the qualities and behaviors you wish to see in your team. When leaders demonstrate dedication, integrity, and a strong work ethic, it sets a standard for everyone to follow.

Potential Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

While the Pygmalion Effect is powerful, it’s crucial to be aware of potential pitfalls and how to avoid them:

  1. Unrealistic Expectations
    • Setting expectations too high can lead to frustration and burnout. Balance ambition with realism to ensure goals are achievable and maintain team morale.
  2. Bias and Favoritism
    • Avoid favoritism by maintaining high expectations for all team members, not just a select few. This creates a fair and inclusive environment where everyone has the opportunity to excel.
  3. Neglecting Individual Differences
    • Recognize that each team member is unique. Tailor your expectations and support to fit each individual. Get to know each team member on a deep level so that you can speak truthfully about the great things you see in them and their unique potential.

How to Foster the Pygmalion Effect in Remote Teams

With the rise of remote work, applying the Pygmalion Effect has become more challenging but not impossible. Here’s how you can adapt the Pygmalion Effect to a virtual environment:

  1. Clear Communication
    • Use regular video calls, emails, and messages to communicate your high expectations. Ensure your team understands your belief in their potential and capabilities.
  2. Virtual Recognition
    • Celebrate successes and milestones virtually. Use team meetings, emails, or collaboration tools to acknowledge and appreciate individual and team achievements.
  3. Personalized Feedback
    • Provide regular, personalized feedback through one-on-one virtual meetings. Make sure your feedback is specific, constructive, and encouraging.
  4. Supportive Environment
    • Create a virtual environment that fosters collaboration and mutual support. Use online tools to facilitate teamwork, share resources, and maintain a positive and inclusive culture.

The Pygmalion Effect is a powerful tool that leaders can use to inspire and elevate their teams. By setting high expectations, providing constructive feedback, and showing genuine interest and support, leaders can create an environment where team members thrive. Recognizing the importance of your role in shaping others’ professional development is key to leveraging this effect.

As a leader, your underlying beliefs and actions profoundly impact your team’s performance. Embrace the Pygmalion Effect by fostering a positive, inclusive, and supportive work culture where every team member feels valued and motivated. Practically, this means spending time with each member, getting to know individuals, and finding what motivates them to do their best. By doing so, you’ll not only enhance individual performance but also drive collective success.

Next Steps

The Pygmalion Effect demonstrates that when leaders believe in their team’s potential, that belief can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to successful outcomes. So, are you ready to embrace this powerful strategy to create lasting success in your team? Start by getting to know your team on a deeper level, setting high expectations, supporting your team with constructive feedback, and celebrating their achievements. Your team’s success begins with your belief in their potential.