It may sound like self-help, but it’s actually sound science: leaders’ beliefs shape how their teams perform
Having vowed to ignore women for the rest of his life, the mythical – and presumably lonely – sculptor Pygmalion decided to carve a female companion out of ivory. He fell so deeply in love with his creation that he talked to it, showered it with gifts – some impressive (gold); others less so (smooth pebbles) – and even laid the sculpture down on his couch at night to sleep. The normally vengeful Roman gods took pity on the delusional artist and granted his wish: with a kiss, the statue came to life.
In a landmark article for the Harvard Business Review, J. Sterling Livingston saw the mythical sculptor as an apt metaphor for business leaders. “More often than one realizes, the manager is Pygmalion,” Livingston wrote. Citing a wealth of research and case studies – and this was in 1969 – Livingston argued that leaders’ beliefs about their teams change how they interact with its members. This, in turn, changes how those team members act, causing them to live up or down to their leader’s beliefs.
A leader’s expectations – not demands or performance targets, but truly held beliefs – can become self-fulfilling prophecies that can produce changes as seemingly impossible as turning ivory into flesh.
Since Livingston’s article, the Pygmalion-esque power of our expectations has been studied in healthcare, the military and education. It’s such a well-established psychological phenomenon that there’s even a name for it: the Pygmalion effect. (The reverse, where low expectations cause lower performance, is called the Golem effect).
Though the research goes back 50 years, it feels especially relevant and necessary today. Gallup’s most recent global survey found that worldwide, only 15 percent of employees feel engaged. The main culprits, at least in the US, according to Gallup, are managers – who, Gallup estimates, account for “70 percent of variance in employee engagement.” The survey didn’t find reason for optimism: only one out of five employees globally feel like they’re “managed in a motivating way.”
Which isn’t to suggest that harnessing the Pygmalion effect will solve the employee engagement crisis overnight. The takeaway is much subtler: what you think about your employees shapes how you act toward them, which affects how they perform, which in turn affects what you believe about them. A virtuous cycle.
The same is obviously true in families, in friendships, and with ourselves. It bears thinking about. Changes in beliefs take time to become embedded in our thinking and even longer to show up in the responses of others. But it’s a step worth taking, given the huge potential rewards.
It was a study in the mid-1960s, led by Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard professor, and Lenore Jacobson, an elementary school principal in San Francisco, that first drew attention to the phenomenon (the Pygmalion effect is sometimes called the Rosenthal effect). The pair administered a test to students at the start of a school year to measure students’ IQs.
When Rosenthal and Jacobson shared the test results with teachers, they told teachers the students had taken the “Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition,” which identified the students mostly likely to “bloom.”
The Harvard Test was, of course, a sham, and no more accurate than a coin flip at predicting a student’s potential. Rosenthal and Jacobson had chosen the “bloomers” at random – but the teachers didn’t know that.
At the end of the year, Rosenthal and Jacobson found a marked difference in IQ scores between “bloomers” and “non-bloomers” – it seemed the fake Harvard Test had created very real distinctions in students’ performances.
Rosenthal, who sat in on classes throughout the year, concluded that the gulf had been caused by teachers’ beliefs. Since the teachers had expected students to perform differently, they had treated them differently. Rosenthal categorized the four most important differences.
1 Climate Through both verbal and non-verbal communication, teachers tended to create a warmer, friendlier environment for “bloomers.”
2 Input factor Since teachers believed “bloomers” were capable of handling more information, they gave them more information to handle.
3 Response opportunity Teachers gave “bloomers” more time to respond, called on them more often, and let them speak longer, believing these students would know or eventually arrive at the right answer.
4 Feedback “Bloomers” were praised more. And, more importantly, “bloomers” were given differentiated feedback; instead of a simple “wrong” or “good job,” teachers told “bloomers” what specifically they could do better or what they did right – crucial to learning and improving.