In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was king of Cyprus, known for his skill in creating sculptures so realistic that they appeared to be alive. One day, he carved a statue of a woman and fell in love with it. Aphrodite granted his wish to bring the sculpture to life. He went on to marry her. The story highlights the power of love to change people’s lives, inspiring many tales such as ‘Pretty Woman‘ (1990).
In 1965, a team of psychologists demonstrated that pupils perform in line with their teacher’s expectations. More generally, the experiment concluded that ‘one person’s expectations of another’s behavior may come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.’ Through expectations, perception is made reality. The ‘Pygmalion effect’ was born.
According to the Pygmalion effect, the teacher’s expectations do not need to be communicated to the pupil. It is the behavior of the teacher, induced by their own expectations, that will unknowingly influence the performance of the pupil. Research establishes that ‘what seems to be critical in the communication of expectations is not what the boss says so much as how he or she behaves.’
The Pygmalion effect has important implications across many fields beyond teaching (or parenting.) When it comes to people management, if a manager expects an employee to perform poorly, they may pay less attention to them or give them fewer growth opportunities. Consequently, the employee may underperform. Conversely, high expectations drive engagement, innovation, and high performance.
The Pygmalion effect establishes a strong link between prejudice and productivity. For that reason, for example, some firms provide limited formal feedback to new employees to avoid putting them prematurely into performance buckets since such a ‘tag’ may have unfair consequences for their career progression.
In a broader corporate culture context, treating employees in a certain way (e.g., children vs. adults, executants vs. owners, politicians vs. leaders, victims vs. players) induces them to behave accordingly.
At the societal level, low expectations toward specific segments of the population may contribute to such population segments’ challenges. Finally, I am convinced that the international community’s negative biases towards certain nation-states impact such states’ behavior.
Discussions about the Pygmalion effect tend to focus on the impact which one has on others. But, in my view, its flip side is the most unsettling one: the performance of every individual or group of individuals is bound by the expectations of their stakeholders. So, what can people do to free themselves from these potential constraints?
Perhaps counterintuitively to some, the best path to garner support for success, as pupils interact with teachers, employees with managers (e.g., budget discussions), and, ultimately, firms with stakeholders, is to guide expectations up rather than down.