When Pygmalion sculpted a statue of a woman out of ivory, he was so taken by the statue’s beauty that he fell in love with it. Venus granted Pygmalion’s wish and brought life to the statue. Pygmalion and the woman (Galatea) married and lived happily ever after. As if by magic, everything Pygmalion desired of a woman came to him when Venus brought the statue to life. Enter Pygmalion in the workplace.
This self-fulfilling prophecy, also referred to the Pygmalion Effect, is alive and active in our workplace today. In the book by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, First, Break All The Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, they discovered thousands of great managers looked for people’s strengths and focused their efforts on improving the strengths (positive reinforcement). How does this tie into the Pygmalion Effect? When a manager sees their staff as being successful, the staff will most likely be successful. Likewise, if a manager believes their staff is not capable of performing, they most likely will not perform.
There have been several studies done to support the Pygmalion Effect. One study was done in an elementary school by Rosenthal and Jacobsen. They randomly presented the names of a handful of students who were said to be exceptional based on a test score. In actuality, there was no correlation between the student’s learning capabilities and the test scores at all. Teachers were provided with the names of these newly labeled “gifted” students and told of their supposed exceptional abilities. After eight months a test was administered and the ‘gifted’ students scored considerably higher, even though their abilities were no different than the majority of the other students. The result, because the teachers believed in the success of the randomly selected group of students, their positive focus toward those select students directly impacted the level of success of that group of students.
Workplace success can also be driven by the self-fulfilling prophecy. J. Sterling Livingston wrote an article describing the Pygmalion Effect that appeared in the September/October, 1988, Harvard Business Review. In this article, Livingston writes, "The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them." Managers who create high performance expectations, offer encouragement, offer support and truly believe the abilities of their support staff will result in achieving performance at the required level. Likewise, managers who are unable to develop the same high expectations will ultimately have a support staff that is lacking in their ability to produce. The unskilled manager can, through negative or thoughtless communications and actions, have a very damaging effect on an employee’s development, or lack thereof. In this same article, Livingston writes of supervisors, “If he (or she) is unskilled, he (or she) leaves scars on the careers of the young men (and women), cuts deeply into their self-esteem and distorts their image of themselves as human beings. But if he (or she) is skillful and has high expectations of his (or her) subordinates, their self-confidence will grow, their capabilities will develop and their productivity will be high. More often than he (or she) realizes, the manager is Pygmalion."
Many factors can come between a high performance environment and an under-performing environment. Survey upon survey shows that sub-par supervisors are the #1 factor causing sub-par performance. While it is difficult to pinpoint any one management style that is best, Gallop’s surveys show a large majority of strong managers understand the need to draw on positive employee talents to accomplish their objectives. They understand the adage; attitude is everything – both from the employees and from the managers. What a manager says, the words they use and the tone in which they say the words, even their body expressions, can impact the support staff – either positively or negatively.
There are other factors that can affect performance: employee health, inadequate tools or technology, a company restructure. Great managers will also consider these factors as they create high performance environments. Are your managers leading Pygmalion? Or is Greek Mythology negatively impacting your work environment? If so, maybe it is time for a management attitude adjustment.