The Pygmalion Effect in Management

Successful managers have high expectations, both of themselves and their team. These expectations are powerful, because they’re the frames in which people fit reality. We often see what we expect, rather than what is actually occurring.

Social psychologists have referred to this as the self-fulfilling prophecy or the Pygmalion effect. In Greek mythology, the sculptor Pygmalion carved a statue of a beautiful woman, fell in love with the statue and brought it to life by the strength of his perceptions. Many managers play Pygmalion-like roles in developing people. Research on the phenomenon of self fulfilling prophecies provides ample evidence that people act in ways that are consistent with our expectations of them. If a manager expects a subordinate to fail, they probably will.

Organization builders have their strongest and most powerful influence in times of economic uncertainty and turbulence. When accepted ways of doing things aren’t working well enough, a manager’s strong expectation about the destination, the processes to follow and the capabilities of the team serve as a driving force that gets the team moving in a positive direction.

In addition, great managers tend to not give up on people, because doing so means giving up on themselves, their judgment, and their ability to get the best out of others. When I ask people to describe exemplary managers, they consistently talk about those that were able to bring out the best in them. To have your team’s best interest in mind and doing what is necessary to help them develop the drive and motivation to be successful; that is one of the defining characteristics of a great manager.

Mastering the Rhythm of Performance

If you’ve observed predators in the wild, you may have noticed that they operate in cycles. Most of the time, they display barely any movement. They project a sense of calm focus, as if they’re waiting for a particular moment. Then it happens! They’re charged with intensity as they sneak up on their prey and attack. When the mission is completed, they return to their original calm and the cycle starts over again.

To be effective, organization builders and managers need to find a way to tap this rhythm of passing between reflection and action, between activity and repose. Any project or initiative whether individual or on a team, require four stages that demand deliberate attention before moving on to the next. This helps create time to think and for collective discussions that lead to a successful endeavor. The following are four stages to consider in using this approach:

Reflection: Evaluate the current situation. What underlying beliefs or theories seem to affect your thinking? What is your purpose and goal for the final results?
Connection: Create ideas and possibilities for action. What should you be looking for? What conversation and training is required?

Decision: Settle on a method for action. Choose and refine your approach. Decisions incorporate an element of choice. “Here is the alternative we choose to take, and here are the reasons why”

Action: Perform the action. Your tasks will be supported by the other three stages which came before.

When the project is completed, you move immediately back to the reflection stage and perhaps a formal evaluation of how it all worked out. Practiced regularly, this method becomes a part of your organizational culture. Using an intentional, self-conscious process like this for decision-making and planning can enable leaders and team members to be more confident in the outcome. Everyone on the team contributes to the process and supports the final decision.