In a position of power, how you treat those below you makes a huge difference, as proved by the Pygmalion Effect.

Whether we are looking after children, managing staff, or coaching a team, our behavior has a direct influence. It is all too easy to see some as more capable than others, and some as more disruptive. We subconsciously give the higher achievers more attention because we want to give them the best chance. However, were we to give equal expectation to all, we improve the performance of the whole team.

The Pygmalion Effect is a psychological phenomenon which explains why we should have high hopes for everyone, even when they are not initially performing.

What Is the Pygmalion Effect?

The Pygmalion Effect is an interpersonal motivational phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. Conversely, low expectations lead to reduced performance in the same way.

It is the very notion of a self-fulfilling prophesy as attributed to sociologist Robert Merton in 1948. In his writings, Merton described the phenomenon of a false belief becoming true over time. This creates a feedback loop whereby we assume we are always correct because we believe ourselves to be. We essentially hypnotize ourselves to achieving what we want.

Robert Rosenthal’s Research

Robert Rosenthal defined the Pygmalion Effect as the phenomenon whereby one person’s expectations for another’s behavior serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rosenthal’s work came to prove that a teacher’s expectations for a student highly influenced the student’s performance.

A group of students took a test which Rosenthal said would be able to identify ‘growth spurters’. ‘Spurters’ are those likely to achieve academically. Rosenthal gave teachers names of pupils Rosenthal said he expected to achieve. ‘Spurter’ students showed a significantly greater increase in performance throughout the year.

‘Spurters’, however, were chosen at random. Rosenthal claimed that the only influence in their performance was the beliefs of the teacher. This proved that the expectation of the teacher, parent, or coach has an incredible impact on the performance of the child.

Rosenthal posed four key factors which explained why this was:


Teachers acted warmer and friendlier to those children said to spurters.


Teachers gave more time and energy into the children said to be spurters.


Teachers called on spurters more often to give answers in class.


Teachers tended to give more helpful responses and in-depth feedback to children said to be spurters.

It is not only children affected by the Pygmalion Effect.

The Pygmalion Effect is also applicable in the workplace in managerial expectations of employees. Those who receive frequent recognition from bosses will feel more motivated to do even better. Conversely, those who are constantly criticized soon lose motivation to try their best and the quality of work may suffer.

When we look at the phenomenon of the Pygmalion Effect, we can clearly see that the way we treat people can vastly alter their performance. We can even use it to consciously change the behavior of others in a positive way. The more we view people as capable of more, the more likely they are to strive to achieve more.

We can see the converse of the Pygmalion Effect in stereotypes of social class in schools and workspaces. The less we believe in someone, the less they are likely to achieve.

By keeping the four aspects of impact in mind when addressing someone you are managing, you can put the Pygmalion Effect to full use.

The first step is creating a positive environment for all.

Offer the same warm and friendly environment to your entire cohort and they will feel more comfortable and secure. This has a powerful impact on ensuring high productivity because comfortable people work best.

Ensure that you are giving the same time and energy to those who may not achieve as those who will.

Be conscious of your feedback and who you decide to give difficult tasks. You may trust those with a consistently high level of output, but by stretching others, you help them improve.

Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool.

When people feel as though they are achieving, the Pygmalion Effect proves that they will keep striving for greatness.

The Pygmalion Effect is a psychological embodiment of mind over matter.

Reinforcement of expectation and belief that someone can achieve is more likely to bring about achievement than criticism. Understanding the Pygmalion Effect and how to use is a valuable tool in people management.

It can help you to get the best out of your team and increase the performance of those who are under-achieving. You have more power than you realize over those who aren’t achieving. With a little belief, even the lowest achieving member of the team can improve.

Practicing working with the Pygmalion Effect can take time, as people sometimes need convincing that they can achieve more. It is easy to criticize and expect achievement through fear.  Stay consistent and remind each person what is expected of them and offer praise when they achieve. Over time, you will see the results you are looking for and the entire team will increase in performance.



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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Aaliyah

    Great website. I work with college students. I will reference this material. It is helpful.

  2. Aaliyah

    Very useful information.

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