the pygmalion effect

How the Pygmalion Effect could be impacting your teams’ performance

If this is the first time you’ve heard about the Pygmalion Effect, we want to assure you, a Pygmalion is not a type of tree-dwelling animal (wouldn’t that be a great name for one though?).

Otherwise known as the Rosenthal effect, it’s a term used to describe the surprising link between higher expectations and an increase in performance.

Read on to discover how the Pygmalion Effect takes hold in our workplaces to this day, and how you can adjust your approach to increase performance outcomes across your organisation.

What is the Pygmalion Effect?

The original study was conducted by social psychologist Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen in a Californian School in 1968.

The findings from the study have proven that the expectation of a leader has a direct impact on the performance of the person they are leading. Or as Rosenthal describes it, “What one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

While the study was originally conducted within a classroom setting, it has since been accepted that the Pygmalion Effect applies to all kinds of settings from elite sports teams to the modern workplace.

Here’s an overview of the study to give you an idea of how the effect works:

Students completed a test that was said to be able to identify ‘growth spurters’ – those who were poised to make strides academically. Teachers were then given the names of pupils who were about to bloom intellectually and like clockwork, these students showed a significant increase in performance compared to their classmates when tested again at the end of the year.

But here’s the kicker: the ‘growth spurters’ were chosen at random. The only difference between them and their peers, as Rosenthal puts it, “was in the mind of the teacher.” It may seem like a small thing, but the expectations held in the mind of a teacher — or a parent, a manager, or a coach — can impact performance greatly.

Wanna watch a video about it? Here you go:



Why every manager should know about the Pygmalion  Effect.

While the Pygmalion Effect certainly calls for us to have higher expectations of the people we’re managing, it doesn’t mean that we should set our sights so high that they’re impossible to meet. Even the best painter in the world isn’t going to be able to replicate the Mona Lisa in an afternoon.

So, how might leaders and managers communicate high expectations? In our view, there is power in taking a coaching approach with your team and using tools like a 90-day performance plan to allow your people to plan and set benchmarks for their best results yet.

Rosenthal shared four key factors that help explain how the Pygmalion Effect works:

  • Climate – Warm and friendly behaviour
  • Input – The tendency for teachers to devote energy to their special students
  • Output – The way teachers call on those students more often for answers
  • Feedback – Giving more helpful responses to students who are considered ‘special’

Knowing these factors, do you think you’re treating some team members differently than others?

Are there people that report to you who you spend more time coaching than others?

Take some time out today to think about how the Pygmalion Effect may be taking hold in your workplace.


How to avoid succumbing to the Pygmalion Effect:


1. Make the time

Block out some time in your calendar for dedicated one-on-one progress check-ins with your team members. Make the effort to have these convos outside of the office, at a local café, there’s science to back that up.


2. Ask better questions

The start of a better question is to ask the one that lies beneath the conversation you’re having.


3. Turn up with the right energy

Some people light a room when they walk into it, where others light a room when they walk out of it…you choose which one you want to be.


4. Get to know them

Find out what their strengths are, what lights them up and allow them to incorporate those things into their everyday workload.


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