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The Pygmalion Effect

January 2, 2012 / 1 min read

Occasionally, I get feedback from friends and colleagues regarding my blog posts. It’s always rewarding to hear other people’s perspectives—in fact, it’s my favorite part about writing a blog, knowing that what I write could be the beginning of a stimulating conversation.

Recently, I received an e-mail from my friend Rick Brown, Vice President & Treasurer for Saturn Electronics & Engineering remarking on a post I wrote back on November 14 called “More Than Words.” In his e-mail, he wrote, “I find that I need to intentionally remind myself of the lesson from the Pygmalion Effect and the responsibility of management to motivate, and hopefully on occasion even excite, individuals on their team. It takes almost no effort and zero cost to recognize and genuinely praise someone who doesn’t ordinarily get praised from that level, and that small action can sometimes be life-changing or spark a proud and long-lasting memory (as well as better performance).

For those who may not be familiar with the Pygmalion Effect, it works like this: others’ beliefs about us result in their actions toward us, which reinforce our beliefs about ourselves, which influence our actions towards others, which, once again, affect others beliefs and actions toward us. The term comes from a 1975 study by Harvard psychology professor Robert Rosenthal, which demonstrated that when teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; conversely, when teachers do not have these expectations, students are actually discouraged.

Although the study focused on elementary school children, the Pygmalion Effect applies to businesses as well. When managers have high expectations of staff, they tend to invest more in them and set higher goals for them. Leaders who believe in the potential of their team inspire confidence within their teams, which results in a more successful, happier workforce. Of course, it works the other way around, too. Leaders that quickly label staff as underperformers tend not to invest as much in their staff; as a result, they often end up with staff who underperform.

As managers, we have such influence over the success of our staff, influence we may not even realize we have. As we embark upon 2012, let’s commit to using that influence responsibly and holding our people accountable to the same standards as we hold ourselves.

Here’s to a successful, fulfilling 2012!

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