The Pygmalion Effect…

What do you do with an 8 year old who believes that she will one day swim in the Olympics and is currently showing no real talent (but lots of enthusiasm)?

Do you encourage her, believing that anything is possible?

Or do you gently discourage her believing that it’s best to face reality now?

Or perhaps just laugh?

Maybe distract her with something else or tell her not to be so silly?

What do you do with team members who appear to have, what seem to you, unrealistic expectations of their ability or potential?

If you've come across the Pygmalion Effect then you’d be wise to pause and think very carefully about how you manage the expectations of those around you.

Robert Rosenthal’s ground breaking study into Teachers expectations and their effect on pupils results demonstrated beyond doubt that the beliefs and expectations of the teacher had a significant impact on pupils performance and results - even down to varying their IQ scores.(Pygmalion effect - Wikipedia)

To quote from a recent paper on the subject:

Simply put, when teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; when teachers do not have such expectations, performance and growth are not so encouraged and may in fact be discouraged in a variety of ways.

In the famous Oak School experiment, teachers were led to believe that certain students, selected at random, were likely to be showing signs of a spurt in intellectual growth and development. At the end of the year these pupils showed significantly greater gains in intellectual growth than those in the control group.

What has all this got to do with us as managers?

Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your point of view, the beliefs and expectations we have of our people tend to become reality. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy…

What we expect to be true in our minds will tend to become true in reality. Even if our expectations aren’t initially accurate, we act in ways that are consistent with our expectations. These actions then create the results we expected and the "prophecy" of our expectations is fulfilled.
(Paul McKenna, Change Your Life In Seven Days).

All this is interesting so far but what can you do with this information?
Here’s a suggestion…

  1. Think about any unhelpful results you are creating in your life, work, team or body shape (or anything else!).
  2. Now, what beliefs and expectations are leading you to create these results?
  3. Finally, what would you have to believe or expect in order to create the results that you really want?

Does this mean that every duffer can become a genius just by changing expectations? Of course not. But it does mean that every duffer is capable of achieving far more than they or the people around them can dream of.

And, more importantly, so are you.

Consider this. If you know for certain that your team can’t do it or are not capable of learning and performing way above their current level then maybe it’s time for you to find a new job and let someone with different expectations take over…


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