• Robb G. Best

The Pygmalion Problem

Just how much is your performance shaped by the way your boss talks to you? To what extent are our behaviors, attitudes, and identities simply a reflection of somebody else’s expectations?

This been the subject of controversy since at least 1968, when Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jackson published their book Pygmalion in the Classroom. In it, Rosenthal and Jackson described studies in which first and second grade teachers seemed to treat students differently based on how smart they believed each child to be, which in turn had a direct impact on that child’s actual performance. This held true even when researchers lied to the teachers about the children’s intelligence—children who were labeled as gifted were treated as such and still performed as such, independently from their actual IQs.

The following year, J. Sterling Livingston wrote his now-legendary article for the Harvard Business Review, “Pygmalion in Management.” Citing several studies, Livingston asserted that the same held true in the workplace: when managers expected more from their employees, those employees tended to deliver. Expectations set tone, and tone had a powerful impact on the entire work culture. As with any new concept in the business world, he was sure to coin a catchy term: the Pygmalion Effect.

Could your boss turn your whole office around if only he or she believed in you guys a little more? Could it really be that simple?

Well, probably not.

As Katherine Ellison discusses in her piece “Being Honest About The Pygmalion Effect,” there has always been plenty of pushback to Rosenthal and Jackson’s work. For one thing, the phenomenon seems to only work when the cues are entirely subconscious. In later versions of the study, telling the teachers that it was important to treat their students like smart kids did not yield meaningful results; the teachers had to truly believe the children possessed high IQs, in this case because they were lied to. Apparently, the proper signals were sent only when the teachers had no idea it was happening.

In other words, a boss who routinely underestimates their workers is unlikely to study the Pygmalion Effect at a corporate retreat and come back with renewed ability to inspire. He or she has likely already formed an opinion about you—right or wrong—and you can’t mirror the results of the original study without somehow bringing in a researcher to make the case for your super-competency and get that positive feedback loop rolling.

So, where do we go from here?

Perhaps the secret moral of the story is to remember that the entire concept IQ is hogwash. As Carol Dweck ably demonstrated in her book Mindset, our level of intelligence, our potential to learn and achieve, is not a static, fixed trait that can be measured with a single number. The best way to improve performance—from children or employees—is to reject these binary labels entirely, and to create an environment that allows for growth and genuinely rewards embracing challenges.

Some critics of the Pygmalion Effect have advanced the arguably more empowering “Galatea Effect,” which suggests that the real secret is to set your own high expectations. By pursuing loftier goals, the theory goes, you will strive harder, creating your own positive self-fulfilling prophesy. However, again, we seem to run into danger of oversimplifying. And as a management technique, this seems difficult to implement: how do you force your employees to believe in themselves? Inspirational posters can only do so much.

It is not just a matter of dreaming big (as you stand at the top of a majestic mountain, arms outstretched, with a glorious sunset in the background). Dweck’s work suggests that people can’t reach their full potential without being willing to sometimes fail. Stretching yourself means taking risks, and not every risk pans out; that’s why they’re called “risks.”

Perhaps when a student or a worker is labeled as exceptional in a Pygmalion study, the people in charge don't just expect more, but paradoxically, show greater patience when the learning curve rears its ugly head. A "low IQ" child who doesn't instantly grasp a concept may be dismissed as "stupid," but a child who has been labeled gifted, struggling in the exact same way, may come off more like a sensitive eccentric who just needs a little more time to get up to speed.

In other words, being a truly effective boss isn’t a mere matter of setting big goals. Great leaders see their team as capable of great things, but they also know that to create lasting, sustainable success, you must send the message that triumph is within reach, but sometimes the journey may get a little messy—and that’s okay. There must be room to soar, but also room to occasionally crash, get back up, and learn from the fall.

In other words, the most effective bosses may be the ones who respect their employees, while also still seeing them as, well, human beings.

Okay, maybe it is kind of simple after all.

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