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Your expectations of employees can determine their performance at work


The Pygmalion and Golem effects suggest that your expectations of your colleagues and direct reports can have a much bigger impact than you might think.

In the late 1960s, American research psychologist Robert Rosenthal conducted an experiment in an elementary school that continues to have implications for leaders of all kinds. Working with school teacher Lenore Jacobson, Rosenthal gave students an ‘intelligence test’, which he told teachers would identify a group of ‘growth spurters’ who had certain characteristics that would set them up for exceptional academic success.

In truth, it was just a random selection of names. At the end of the school year, the ‘spurters’ had significantly outperformed the rest of the students.

But if the names were random, how was this possible? Rosenthal found that certain conscious and unconscious behaviours from the teachers influenced the students to perform well.

The resulting landmark study, ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom (1968)’, was named after the Greek mythological figure Pygmalion (a sculptor who falls in love with one of his statues who then comes to life), which is why Rosenthal dubbed the phenomenon the Pygmalion effect.

“It’s a special case of self-fulfilling prophecy,” explains now-retired organisational psychologist Professor Dov Eden, who has researched the effect extensively in workplaces and the military.

When you get people to believe they can do things, that motivates them to exert greater effort to achieve them.”

The pattern has been demonstrated time and time again in workplaces. How leaders convey their expectations has a huge impact on how workers view themselves – and how they end up performing.

“[Rosenthal] also studied it in medicine, law and police lineups. He’s done work across all these different fields and found the same kind of thing,” says Professor Christine Rubie-Davies, who has co-authored a study alongside Rosenthal.

Based at the University of Auckland, Rubie-Davies’ work focuses on understanding how teachers with high expectations positively impact student performance.

“I was a teacher for quite a long time before I came into the university, and I taught a lot in low socioeconomic areas. I saw those kinds of teachers, the ones who really made a big difference for kids’ learning, and the others who didn’t,” she says.

“When we have high expectations, we treat people to better leadership.” – Professor Dov Eden

Her ‘Teacher Expectation Project’ identified three key behaviours of teachers who fostered high expectations of all their students: creating a positive class climate; not dividing students by abilities; and setting clear goals.

“In the classroom, some teachers will ask much higher-level questions of the high-expectation kids and ask really low-level kinds of questions of others. High-expectation teachers don’t do that. They ask open high-level questions of all the kids, so they’re all having to think at high levels.”

Rubie-Davies says there are clear parallels between teacher-student dynamics at schools and leader-subordinate dynamics at work.

“The way the leader interacts with their staff portrays their expectations of what’s going to happen. Then the staff, over time, will begin to interact or act in the way the manager expects them to.”

Expectations in the workplace

It can help to visualise the Pygmalion effect as a loop, or four stages: the way we think about someone influences our actions towards them; that impacts the way that person thinks about themself; that influences their external behaviour; which reinforces how we think about them.

“It’s a very human phenomenon,” says Eden. “I’m sure it has been going on for untold, uncounted generations before Rosenthal and Jacobson studied it experimentally in a classroom.”

Before Rosenthal studied Pygmalion in education, he conducted an experiment with lab rats that planted the seed for his later research.

In his lab at Harvard University, he separated rats into two groups. Group A was dubbed ‘bright’ rats and Group B ‘dull’ rats. A group of lab assistants was then told to spend a week coaching the rats to run through a maze.

At the end of the week, the results were astounding: the ‘bright’ rats did almost twice as well as the ‘dull’ rats. Rosenthal posited that the animals’ performance was influenced by subtle behaviour changes by their human trainers – such as the way they handled them, and maybe even their tone of voice.

Eden remembers being fascinated by the research when he read it as a doctoral student, and he was curious to see if the same effect would play out in workplaces.

His first study of the phenomenon, ‘Pygmalion Goes to Bootcamp (1982)’, followed 105 Israeli Defense Forces trainees as they undertook a 15-week combat course.

Instructors were told at the beginning of the course that some trainees were expected to be high performers. Pygmalion was confirmed again; those marked as high performers scored significantly higher on achievement tests, had more positive attitudes and thought more highly of their leaders.

“When we have high expectations, we treat people to better leadership,” says Eden. “We smile at them more often, we nod affirmatively more often when we’re talking to them, and we reduce physical distance and increase proximity. We [exhibit] a whole series of behaviours we’re not necessarily conscious of.”

These behaviours can significantly enhance a worker’s self-efficacy and confidence, or their sense of their own abilities.

Avoiding the Golem effect

While Pygmalion describes high expectations leading to high performance, the inverse – low expectations prompting low performance – is known as the Golem effect (in modern Hebrew, Golem means someone who is dumb or helpless.)

While this is incredibly damaging for an employee’s development, it can be a common occurrence in workplaces.

“You see it play out on a daily basis, unfortunately,” says Nicholas Vayenas, Managing Director of HR consultancy Liquid HR.

“Often, the perceived weaker employees tend to be given the more mundane, lower-level tasks to undertake, while the perceived high performers are given the nice, interesting projects and variety.”

This can stymie growth, he says.

“The perceived lower performers are not given the opportunity to then raise their standards, whereas the high performers are constantly nurtured and given the ability to keep performing and showing high levels of output,” says Vayenas.

Leadership coach and psychologist Dr Karen Morley adds that if a person doesn’t feel respected at work, it could have a physiological impact on them.

“When we feel a sense of threat, that triggers our sympathetic nervous system and we enter fight or flight mode. When that happens, we don’t process information as readily and it tends to shut down our awareness,” she says.

“Often, the perceived weaker employees tend to be given the more mundane, lower-level tasks to undertake, while the perceived high performers are given the nice, interesting projects and variety.” – Nicholas Vayenas, Managing Director, HR consultancy Liquid HR.

Morley recently coached a leader who worked at a global research organisation who was having difficulties being recognised by her senior leaders and “felt really limited” by her boss.

She had recently missed out on a more senior leadership position. The new boss who took on the role didn’t take the time to develop a personal connection with her and his feedback was very negative or fuzzy.

As a result, the leader’s performance and confidence suffered.

“She felt frustrated and demoralised, and was disinclined to put in discretionary effort,” says Morley. “She was isolating herself in her own work.”

In their coaching session, Morley helped the leader address these limitations. They adopted a coaching mindset that she could apply to her interactions with her boss, which helped to develop a more positive set of expectations for the relationship.

Eden says Pygmalion leaders won’t leave it to their subordinates to lift their own performance; they’ll create an atmosphere that organically helps people believe in themselves.

“Every interaction with a subordinate is an opportunity to be Pygmalion; it’s an opportunity to strengthen self-efficacy.

“It’s an opportunity to tell people, ‘I know you’re going to have a successful day. I know you’re going to do this. I know you’re going to win these clients or meet those production goals. I know you’re going to do well.’ It only takes a few seconds to say, and it can make a world of difference.”

Strategies to help you set positive expectations

Eden says the following Pygmalion strategies may help leaders to increase the self-efficacy of others:

    1. Create a supportive climate. Consider your unconscious non-verbal behaviour to make sure you’re projecting warm and supportive behaviour to all employees. This includes sustained eye contact, open body language, positive tone of voice and even pace of speech (i.e. don’t talk slowly to someone because it could signal that you think they won’t understand you).
    2. Provide opportunities for growth. “Nobody likes to stay on the bench,” says Eden. Encouraging people to take on new projects and opportunities shows you believe they can achieve them.
    3. Give clear and encouraging feedback – especially in the face of failure.

“Every time someone fails, it takes a nick out of their self-efficacy,” says Eden.

The trick is to help people attribute success internally and failure externally, he says.

“You protect them by saying, ‘Look, you simply screwed up. But it’s not because you can’t do it. You can do it, and you’re going to do it better next time. Let’s see where you went wrong’.”

Pygmalion training that includes role-playing has been shown to help managers address unconscious interpersonal behaviours and adopt more effective habits, says Eden.

Vayenas says it’s also critical for HR and managers to learn how to identify their biases.

“I genuinely believe that awareness and education around the bias is the most effective way to address the issue. [Develop] an ability to catch yourself acting out these biases by asking, ‘Have I given this individual the best possible opportunity to demonstrate their capability, and if not, what do I need to do?’

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