Seen Pygmalion lately?

Ah those Greeks. So much mythology to apply to our day to day lives.

One of my favorites is that of Pygmalion – a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved. From that came the term Pygmalion effect – which is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. That’s right; if you place high expectations on someone – and tell them they have the potential to do great things – often times that person rises to the level of those expectations. Gee, that seems simple. The key of course is that you truly believe in the individual to whom you are communicating these elevated expectations. As managers, just sending this message to key players on our team can unleash mega-levels of productivity.

Before we dismiss this as hopeful thinking, the data back up the Pygmalion effect. Decades of research have provided consistent, robust evidence that there is a correlation between high performance and setting high expectations for those that we expect great things from (Wikipedia). What’s behind the power of the Pygmalion effect is the idea that telling someone they have what it takes to do great things sets in motion the elements of high performance. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Pygmalion effect should motivate us to find that person on our team that has high potential and tell them that we believe in the them. Give them a stretch assignment. Ask big things of them. Then ‘watch them go and watch them grow’.

To appreciate the power of the Pygmalion effect let’s take a look at its corollary. You guessed it: low expectations lead to a decrease in performance. This is called the ‘Golem effect’. Picture that young child that is told by his/her parents that s/he will never amount to anything. It’s not hard to imagine what the future holds for this individual as s/he grows older. Here, the self-fulfilling prophecy is on the darker side. I’d say we want to say hello to Pygmalion and good-bye to Golem.

So, go find those you believe in, tell them so, and then set high expectations for them. Their ensuing success – and yours – will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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