The Pygmalion Effect:  How Leaders’ Expectations Impact Team Performance

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Allow me to transport you back to my high school days, where a chemistry class became the backdrop for a profound lesson in human behavior.

Our teacher consistently judged the students, demonstrating a clear bias against those he lacked confidence in. Predictably, every one of these students ended up failing.

Why am I sharing this with you? In this classroom, I witnessed something extraordinary – the Pygmalion effect, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time.

The Power of Expectations

The Pygmalion effect, often referred to as the Rosenthal effect, named after the Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal, is a fascinating manifestation of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Effective leadership has far-reaching implications for team performance and workplace engagement in today’s fast-paced business landscape. Effective leaders understand the transformative power of their expectations. They not only set high standards for themselves but also maintain unwavering faith in their team members. This trust and respect boost their team’s self-esteem, enabling them to achieve more they might not have thought possible on their own. When leaders hold these high expectations, their team members are more likely to excel and produce remarkable results.

On the flip side, low expectations can have a detrimental impact on performance. When a leader anticipates failure, team members are more likely to conform to these expectations. Low-aspiration leaders run the risk of fostering a culture of mediocrity, where excellence remains elusive.

What’s remarkable is that mere expectations can significantly influence the actual outcome! Our own expectations and the expectations of others play a significant role in shaping our behavior as leaders and how our team members perform. The Pygmalion effect operates in a continuous loop: expectations from others influence their interactions with us, subsequently molding our perceptions and actions.

Thus, regardless of whether the expectations are entirely accurate or not, individuals tend to thrive in a supportive environment and struggle to overcome perceived underperformance. This phenomenon (although mostly unconscious) can be used intentionally to facilitate the development of others.

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How to use the Pygmalion effect to impact your team’s performance

As a leader, there are several actions you can take to use the power of the Pygmalion effect and drive exceptional team performance. Here are some actionable steps:

Challenge Your Team: Set clear, ambitious yet attainable goals that convey your unwavering belief in your team’s abilities. Inspire them to reach for excellence.

Positive Communication: Recognize and leverage your team members’ strengths and talents. Provide constructive feedback in areas where improvement is needed, and offer guidance for their development. Give those facing challenges a second chance to showcase their potential.

Raise Awareness: Fight stereotypes and biases that may lead to low expectations. Promote an inclusive and equitable environment.

Lead by Example: Be a living embodiment of high expectations and continual improvement. Exhibit a strong work ethic, perseverance, and an unwavering commitment to excellence in your own actions.

Cultivate a High-Expectation Culture: Foster a culture of trust, collaboration, and open communication within your organization. Encourage team members to share ideas and provide input. Celebrate successes and acknowledge efforts to inspire and motivate.

However, it’s essential to emphasize that as a leader, your belief in each team member’s potential must be genuine! High expectations should stem from an authentic place of unwavering faith. Your actions will always speak louder than words, and if you don’t truly believe in someone’s potential, they will likely sense it. Authentic leadership involves a sincere belief in each team member’s ability, providing the support they need, and creating an empowering environment that allows them to achieve greatness.

Sources

Brown, D.J, Scott, K.A. & Lewis, H. (2004). Information processing and leadership. In J. Antonakis, A. Cianciolo & R. Sternberg (eds.). The nature of leadership. 125-147. Thousand Oak, CA: Sage Publications

Eden, D. (2002). Leadership and expectations: Pygmalion effects and other self-fulfilling prophecies in organisations. The Leadership Quartley. 3(4): 271-305

Kouzes, J.M. & Posner, B.Z. (2002). The leadership challenge (3rd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Veestraeten, M., Johnson, S.K., Leroy, H., Sy, T. and Sels, L. (2021). Exploring the Bounds of Pygmalion Effects: Congruence of Implicit Followership Theories Drives and Binds Leader Performance Expectations and Follower Work Engagement. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. Vol. 28(2) 137–153

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