In the 1960s, Harvard psychology professor Robert Rosenthal teamed up with South San Francisco elementary school principal Lenore Jacobson to conduct what later became known as the Pygmalion Effect study.  In the study, 20% of the students within each of 18 elementary school classrooms were randomly assigned to a ‘high achiever’ group, with the remaining 80% serving as the control group. Later studies revealed that when teachers have higher expectations of students, they unconsciously give more positive attention, feedback, and learning opportunities to those students.
Marva Collins, one of the most extraordinary educators of the 20th century, offers another example of the Pygmalion Effect in action.  In 1975, dissatisfied with the Chicago public school system, she decided to open her own school on the second floor of her home in inner-city Chicago. Whereas the public system had largely written these students off as ‘learning disabled’, Marva had them studying books like Plato’s Republic and opining about the meaning of justice in modern society.
When managers have high expectations of their team members, they tend to pay more attention to them, give them more context and set more ambitious goals for them. Too often, managers have the exact opposite effect on their people; they are quick to judge and label a team member as an underperformer. Interestingly, the Pygmalion in Management article notes that “subordinates will not be motivated to reach high levels of productivity unless they consider the boss’s high expectations realistic and achievable.
Scientific research by David McClelland at Harvard University and John Atkinson at University of Michigan demonstrated that the relationship of motivation to expectations varies in the form of a bell shaped curve. The degree of motivation and effort rises until the probability of success reaches 50%, then begins to fall even though the probability of success continues to increase.
If you don’t think there’s enough of a chance of achieving the goal, you may get overwhelmed and lose motivation.


Since your team member’s effort and motivation is correlated to their expectations of their own capabilities, it’s important to understand what those are. Expectations are dynamic, and if you can create an upward spiral where your people learn to believe in themselves and expect more from themselves, their performance and motivation will continue to increase over time as they take on more challenging tasks and responsibilities. Great leaders believe in the potential of their people, and help them become all they are capable of being. This phenomenon of self-fulfilling expectations has come to be known as the Pygmalion Effect. Her belief in the capability of her students became a self-fulfilling prophecy that enabled them to achieve extraordinary results. In addition, their high expectations are constantly communicated in subtle non-verbal cues, such as body language, facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, etc. They then relate to them with low expectations, and ‘prove’ themselves right when the employee delivers poor performance. If they are encouraged to strive for unattainable goals, they eventually give up trying and settle for results that are lower than they are capable of achieving.”  So, the key is having extremely high expectations of your people, but not so high that they themselves don’t believe in them. Conversely, if you’re pretty sure you can achieve it, you won’t be motivated to bring your best effort. You can inadvertently demotivate your team members if your expectations of them are either too high or too low.


Too often, when leaders set goals and timelines with their team members, they simply go back and forth and then make a decision, without any discussion of perceived probability of success.
To create a high-performing team, you must have high expectations of your team members, believe in their ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and help them set stretch goals.
The managers then pat themselves on the back for their astute judgment of people’s innate abilities and then go on labeling other underperformers, continuing the cycle. So, spend the time to get to know your people and understand how they view themselves and their potential.
Make sure your executive team is aware of the Pygmalion Effect, and encourage them to expect the best from their teams.
When the goals or timelines are later missed, it’s revealed that the team member agreed to a goal they themselves believed they had a very low probability to achieve (usually in an effort to please their boss).  Instead of letting these assumptions remain implicit, have a direct conversation about your team member’s perceived probability of success (perhaps under different scenarios or timelines), and encourage them to set goals that they have a 50% chance of achieving. Leaders who believe in the potential of their team members bring out the best in their people by helping them believe in themselves, constantly challenging them to grow and supporting them along the way.



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