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.


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