The pygmalion effect
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide

The mythical Greek sculptor Pygmalion could not find a wife who met his high standards. So he carved one out of ivory, and with Aphrodite’s help he turned her into his living soul mate.

Fast forward to 1965, when psychologists Robert Rosenthal, from Harvard, and Lenore Jacobson, principal of an Elementary School in South San Francisco, ran an experiment.
They had all of the school’s pupils take a simple IQ test. What they told the teachers was that they were running a test to identify the pupils who would make a big leap forward that year to intellectually outperform their peers. Ignoring their own test results, the researchers then picked a random sample of 20% of the students, disclosed their names to the teachers as the alleged “intellectual bloomers”, and asked the teachers to keep this information confidential.

At the end of the school year, they ran the same IQ test. And lo and behold, the “intellectual bloomers’” had increased significantly in IQ points as compared to the other students. In addition to that, their performance in Math and English had improved above average.

Now here’s what Rosenthal and Jacobson had really put to the test:

Would teachers’ expectations influence their students’ perfor-mance?

The answer was: Yes! They concluded that teachers subconsciously behave in ways which make students perform better. And they called that the pygmalion effect. Many tests have since confirmed their findings with different groups.

Alas, the opposite “Golem effect” of negative expectations resulting in lesser performance has also been shown to exist.

You may think that children’s intellectual growth is of course influenced by their environment. Don’t we all know that by now?

Here’s how this is relevant to leaders in the workplace.

The findings were replicated in the workplace by Harvard professor J. Sterlin Livingston. Employees were allegedly tested for their potential, and managers were given random names of those who supposedly had tested to be the most promising. Livingston found that managers’ expectations had a huge impact on how well their employees performed and on the career progress they made. Bottom line:

Leaders and authority figures play an important role in the success or failure of those they lead or super-vise.

If you aspire to be an empowering leader, you may wonder how you can bring that to your leadership. Perhaps, day in and day out, you experience how some of your employees do perform better than others. Then ask yourself what unconscious beliefs about them might influence your attitude and behaviour towards them.

Run your own experiment, and use this as your own growth opportuni-ty as a leader.

  • Look at the people you lead: Who do you have low expectations of? Make your list.

  • Now make a conscious choice of expecting them to bloom in this coming year.

  • Start looking for evidence of their surprising you in a positive way. Expect to be delighted.

  • Revisit your list in one year.

If you already have an experience of suddenly seeing previously hidden potential in one of your employees and how your changing bias and attitude has effected their growth, please share in the comments below!

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