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The Pygmalion Effect

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

“Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.” - Jack Welch

A team does as well as you and the duo think they can.

This idea is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. They do when you believe the team will perform well in some strange, magical way. And similarly, when you think they will not perform well, they do not. This idea is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. There is enough experimental data to suggest that the self-fulfilling prophecy is accurate. One unusual experiment in 1911 concerned a very clever horse called Hans. This horse had a reputation for adding, multiplying, subtracting, and dividing by tapping out the answer with its hooves. The extraordinary thing was that it could do this without its trainer being present. It only needed someone to put the questions.

On investigation, it was found that when the questioner knew the answer, they transmitted various very subtle body language clues to Hans, such as raising an eyebrow or dilating the nostrils. Hans noticed these clues and continued tapping until he arrived at the required answer. The questioner expected a response, and Hans obliged.

Similarly, an experiment was conducted at a British school on the performance of a new intake of pupils. At the start of the year, the pupils were each given a rating, ranging from excellent prospect to unlikely to do well. These were arbitrary ratings and did not reflect how well the pupils had previously performed. Nevertheless, these ratings were given to the teachers. At the end of the year, the experimenters compared the pupil’s performance with the ratings. Despite their natural abilities, there was an astonishingly high correlation between performance and ratings. It seems that people perform as well as we expect them to.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is also known as the Pygmalion Effect. This comes from a story by Ovid about Pygmalion, a sculptor and prince of Cyprus who created an ivory statue of his ideal woman. The result, which he called Galatea, was so beautiful that he once fell in love with it. He begged the goddess Aphrodite to breathe life into the statue and make her his own. Aphrodite granted Pygmalion his wish, the figure came to life, and the couple married and lived happily ever after.

The story was also the basis of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, later turned into the musical My Fair Lady. In Shaw’s play, Professor Henry Higgins claims he can take a Cockney flower carrier, Eliza Doolittle, and turn her into a duchess. But, as Eliza points out to Higgins’s friend Pickering, it is not what she learns or does that decides whether she will become a duchess, but how she is treated.

Apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing, the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower carrier is not how she behaves but how she is treated. I shall always be a flower carrier to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower carrier and always will, but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will.

The implication of the Pygmalion effect for leaders and managers is massive. Your team's performance depends less on them than on you. The version you get from people is no more or less than what you expect: which means you must always expect the best. As Goethe said, treat a man as he is and will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and will become as he can and should be.

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