The Pygmalion Effect: Harnessing the Power of Expectation in Leadership & Management

Want to be a truly great leader? Maybe it’s time to harness the power of the Pyg! In this article we’re looking at how to harness the power of The Pygmalion Effect in leadership and management.

In case you’re wondering, the Pygmalion Effect, or Rosenthal Effect, is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance and development. We all want that kind of increase in our organisations, right?

What we learn from the research is positive expectation plays a huge role in how people develop and perform. In fact, the reverse is also true, when expectations are low and negative, growth is significantly stunted and potential goes unrealised. Leaders who create positive expectations inspire confidence, self-belief and success. Leaders with low expectations don’t inspire very much at all. What kind of leader do you want to be?

Build A Culture

Organisations who produce consistent growth and success year on year have developed a prevailing culture of positive expectation. Rousing the troops once a year at the Annual General Meeting isn’t enough to create an environment of ongoing success. You have to train yourself to continually see new potential in your team, fostering the belief they can, and will, achieve great things. If you truly believe they can, they’ll believe it too. This is why the Pygmalion Effect is often referred to as a self-fulfilling prophecy. We believe they can, we behave like they will, and so they do.

We believe they can, we behave like they will, and so they do.

In contrast, if we believe they can’t, we act like they won’t, and so they don’t. So, the first step towards creating a Pygmalion culture is to change the way you think about those you lead. Do you believe in them? Do you expect them to fulfil their potential and go beyond their current ability? As their leader you frame how people see themselves, setting them up for stagnation or continual growth and success.

Being a life-long supporter of Liverpool Football Club it pains me to admit, under the management of Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United dominated English football for over a decade. The team lived under a prevailing expectation of winning. Sir Alex established the expectation that only victory would do, losing was simply not an option. Pygmalion was in full effect, consistently developing players with the aptitude and mentality to win and succeed.

Keep It Positive

Harnessing the power of the Pygmalion Effect in your organisation isn’t just about expectation, it’s about positive expectation. When we leave out the positive, our teams end up driven by fear of failure, cease taking risks, stop innovating, and eventually abandon ship altogether.

Training your workforce is both costly and time consuming, so it’s important to learn how to build an environment of positive expectation, yet remain realistic enough to ensure people feel valued, developed and appreciated.

4 Steps of Positive Expectation

Creating positive expectation for your team isn’t like waving a magic wand that suddenly makes everyone overachieve. You still have to lead, develop and train. We’ve outlined these four points to help develop your own approach to establishing the Pygmalion Effect in your organisation…

1. See potential

Finding flaws in people is easy. Truly great leaders have developed their ability to look beyond the flaws and identify potential. When we make negative assumptions about our team, we place limitations on how much they can achieve. Unless they possess great self-confidence, they’ll only ever rise to the limitation of your expectation. Ask yourself, what limitations have you placed on your team because of how you see them? Challenge yourself to see your team for what they can become, rather than the level of their current competency.

2. Say what you see

Great leaders liberate teams from fear, helping them see their own untapped ability. Once you’ve identified undeveloped skills and talents, inspire your team by telling them what you see. Making this simple adjustment in your approach will have an instant impact on your direct reports. Watch how your team rise in response to your words of encouragement, simply because they can feel you believe in them.

3. Delegate responsibility

Having identified and communicated the potential you see, it’s time to prove you mean it. You can’t fake positive expectation, you have to actually believe your team can reach your expectations. That means demonstrating trust and delegating genuine responsibility. There’s no greater vote of confidence than handing over an important project or department to somebody on your team. See their potential, tell them what you see, and trust them with responsibility.

4. Lead to success

As the leader / manager your primary role is to provide everything your team needs to achieve success. Offer them training, be accessible, motivate, keep inspiring and keep believing. If you delegate a responsibility, maintain trust but don’t completely disappear. You’re building confidence and self belief in your team, so it’s important you continue to lead that process. When they inevitably suffer self-doubt, fear, or inadequacy, that’s when your positive expectation is needed most. Don’t take back the work; maintain trust, reinforce your belief in their ability, inspire, support and train for success.

Embed the Culture

Once you develop a mentality of positive expectation within your own leadership style, it’ll be time to spread the learning. Take time to teach your team the power of positive expectation, and establish a Pygmalion Culture that lives throughout your entire organisation. When positive expectation exists amongst team members, they inspire one another to rise to new heights, cultivate innovation, and celebrate victories together.

At Zatzar we’re committed to supporting our clients, helping to harness the full power of The Pygmalion Effect. Just remember, as the leader, Pygmalion will always begin and end with you – contact Yatzar today!

Neil Reid

Director at Yatzar
Founder and Director of Yaztar - - Neil has over 20 years leadership and management experience across a diverse range of industries. He's a positive motivator, believes leadership and management is supposed to be fun, and is committed to helping organisations and individuals rediscover the joy in successful management.

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