Last Updated : 29-08-2014 21:55



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By Lionel Wijesiri
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us — Oliver Wendell Holmes
Interestingly enough, ancient Greek mythology creates an archetype for a present day social phenomenon with an artist named Pygmalion. He carved the perfect woman from ivory and fell in love with his own creation, naming it Galatea. Pygmalion desperately wished she was alive. With the help of the goddess Venus and his true belief in his creation, Galatea was brought to life.

Though the name originates from this allegory, the more precise nature of the Pygmalion effect, also known as self-fulfilling prophecy, is demonstrated in George Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Pygmalion made into the classic movie. ‘My Fair Lady’.

Professor Henry Higgins insisted that he could take a Cockney flower girl and turn her into a duchess, the subject of his experiment. Eliza Doolittle, actually makes the point of the Pygmalion effect quite clear in her lines: “You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will, but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady. and always
Social scientists and psychologists use this paradigm as a metaphor for the expectancy outcome known as the Pygmalion Effect’ or self-fulfilling prophecy. Not surprisingly, the effect has an opposite reaction known as the Galatea effect. Both reflect the transference process of expectancy that occurs among people.

Business context
What does this have to do with business? Everything: because of the thousands of cues, most non-verbal, expectations are transmitted and fulfilled between people in all relationship dynamics.
According to Harvard Business Review, self-fulfilling prophecy can be summarized in the following principles:
  • This creates a circle of self-fulfilling prophecies.
  • We tend to be comfortable with people who meet our expectations, whether they’re high or low.
  • We communicate those expectations with various cues..
  • We form certain expectations of people or events. This is natural and unavoidable.
  • People tend to respond to these cues by adjusting their behavior to match them.
  • The result is that the original expectation becomes true.
  • Once formed, expectations about us tend to be self-sustaining.
The manager is Pygmalion. The Pygmalion Effect, positive self-fulfilling prophecies and empowerment are all components of one of the most important demands of management.
A top priority of any executive is to make his or her employees successful. Once high expectations have been developed and tough goals have been set, the executive should devote his or her time and energy to supporting team members in their work. This support helps ensure their success and ultimately the company’s.

There are some basic principles to cultivate a positive work performance environment. He proposes the following:
Use fairness. Lead by example. As a manager, don’t expect one thing of your employees and then do another. If asking for time off is frowned upon, taking time off to play golf, only belittles employees.

Challenge people with responsibility and opportunity.  If a successful manager is one who is skillful and has high expectations of his subordinates, their self-confidence will grow, their capabilities will develop and their productivity will be high.  More often than he realizes, the manager is Pygmalion.
Give people authority over their responsibilities. A manager may feel that making all the decisions is part of the job, but this inability to delegate decision-making doesn’t give the necessary tools to employees thus defeating any progress made. Furthermore, it negates any positive progress by telling employees that they are incapable of thinking and making the right decisions. Nothing destroys morale and creates a suspicious culture faster than employees who feel accountable yet powerless to accomplish their goals.

Recognize people for their work. Humans are by nature social animals and we naturally seek approval from others, especially those we respect. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that after basic physiological and safety needs, the next need is for love, affection, and belonging. Assuming your employees earn enough to live and feel safe, letting them know you appreciate them is the next thing you can do in fulfilling their needs.
Do what you say. Don’t let the sincerity of your word be uncertain. At the end of the day, all relationships — business or personal — are built on trust. If you make promises and don’t deliver, how is that different than lying?
J. Sterling Livingston, a Professor at Harvard Business School wrote an article called Pygmalion in Management, which was followed up with a number of studies and experiments.  The article and the studies illustrated that, just as with teachers and students, a manager’s expectations are the key to a subordinate’s performance and development.

When managers have high expectations of their team members, they tend to pay more attention to them, give them more space to work and set them more ambitious goals for them. In addition, their high expectations are constantly communicated in subtle non-verbal cues, such as body language, facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, etc.  (Researchers have found that as much as 70% of communication is non-verbal.) Human beings are remarkably skilled at consciously and unconsciously receiving these subtle, non-verbal signals of others’ feelings and expectations about them.  These cues then alter the way people see themselves and what they believe is expected of them. Leaders who believe in the potential of their team members bring out the best in their people by helping them believe in themselves, constantly challenging them to grow and supporting them along the way.

Too often, managers have the exact opposite effect on their people; they are quick to judge and label a team member as an underperformer. They then relate to them with low expectations, and ‘prove’ themselves right when the employee delivers poor performance. The managers then pat themselves on the back for their astute judgment of people’s innate abilities and then go on labelling other underperformers, continuing the cycle. This reverse Pygmalion Effect has come to be known as the Golem Effect. If you’re one of those managers, I invite you to ask yourself, “would you rather be ‘right’ or maximize your chance of success?”

Right level
Interestingly, Livingston’s Pygmalion in Management article notes that “subordinates will not be motivated to reach high levels of productivity unless they consider the boss’s high expectations realistic and achievable. If they are encouraged to strive for unattainable goals, they eventually give up trying and settle for results that are lower than they are capable of achieving.”  So, the key is having extremely high expectations of your people, but not so high that they themselves don’t believe in them.
Scientific research by David McClelland at Harvard University and John Atkinson at University of Michigan demonstrated that the relationship of motivation to expectations varies in the form of a bell shaped curve. The degree of motivation and effort rises until the probability of success reaches 50%, and then begins to fall even though the probability of success continues to increase. If you don’t think there’s enough of a chance of achieving the goal, you may get overwhelmed and lose motivation. Conversely, if you’re pretty sure you can achieve it, you won’t be motivated to bring your best effort.
The bottom line is this: Leaders! You must believe in your team. Hold positive and high expectations that they will solve that difficult problem, meet the seemingly insurmountable challenge, and more often than not, they will meet or exceed your expectations.


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