“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated… I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”
So said Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, though you may be more familiar with the musical version, My Fair Lady.
Eliza is referring to what is commonly called “the self-fulfilling prophecy.” It is the basis of what psychologists now call the Pygmalion Effect and shows how attitudes and expectations can have a profound impact on performance.
A 1965 study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson showed this effect at work in the classroom. Teachers at an elementary school were told which students, based on an IQ test, were considered to be “intellectual bloomers.” In reality, those students were selected randomly and not by IQ at all.
When tested at the end of the study, the students who were labelled (only to the teachers) as having a higher intellect increased their IQ scores more than those of the other students. This led to the conclusion that teacher expectations, particularly for the youngest children, can influence student achievement.
The researchers found that teachers’ subconscious attitudes and behaviors toward the “exceptional” children were more positive and so they had a positive effect on the children’s attitudes toward their own potential, which caused them to perform at a higher level.
Success at Work
More recent studies measure the relationship between supervisors and employees. In his book, Pygmalion in Management, J Sterling Livingston found that managers’ expectations of their subordinates subtly affect the way they treat them. The result? If expectations are high, productivity is high. Likewise, low expectations result in lower performance.
High performing managers create high, but reasonable, expectations that their employees tend to live up to, while poor managers do not expect as much from their workers and so they don’t get much in return.
More importantly, when new employees are subjected to managers who are ineffective at creating a positive work environment with expectations of high performance, they not only perform worse but the experience creates low self-esteem and a less favorable attitude toward their job, their employer and can even lead to questioning their suitability to their profession.
Whether you are a manager or a teacher or a parent, you can encourage higher levels of achievement by clearly communicating positive feelings and expectations of great outcomes. Remember that the expectations of the authority figure have an especially large impact early – with young children and new employees.
One caveat – be sure the expectations are within reasonable reach. If the person feels they are totally impossible, the effect is a performance decrease.
And whether or not you are in a leadership position, set your own expectations for yourself high. You can only achieve great things if you think you can. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t – you’re right.”
Think well and be well.