The Pygmalion Effect on the Workplace

The Pygmalion Effect and Its Impact on Work

Pygmalion is a character in one of the books of the mythological work Metamorphoses, by the poet of ancient Rome, Ovid. Pygmalion was a king of Cyprus and a sculptor, and, disappointed with women, had decided to be celibate. However, after sculpting a statue of a woman he considered ideal, he fell in love with her, wishing she had life. The goddess Aphrodite then granted his request. In the previous figure, you can see the work of the French artist, Étienne Maurice Falconet, depicting Pigmalyon and the statue.

The Pygmalion effect is the phenomenon in which, a higher expectation in relation to someone’s performance, effectively leads to better performance; and the inverse is also true. The Pygmalion effect is the result of a famous experiment conducted in 1963 by Harvard professor and psychologist Robert Rosenthal and by the director of an elementary school in San Franciso, Lenore Jacobson. The study started with a discreet IQ test on all students at the school, however, the results were not reported to teachers or students. At random, the names of about 20% of the school’s students were chosen, and teachers were told that these students were exceptional, and that they would most likely have significant results, and well above average, that year. Again, at the end of the study, the researchers tested all students with the same IQ test used at the beginning. Students, in general, showed an improvement in IQ, however, students said to be exceptional to their teachers (although the choice was random) showed statistically superior gains. This led to the conclusion that teachers’ expectations in relation to the performance of certain students, could effectively influence these students to the point of improving their performance.Hence, in reference to Pygmalion, who so wanted his statue to become alive, until she became a woman, it was called the Pigmalyon Effect, due to the fact that students improve their performance, influenced by the teachers’ beliefs, that they were special.

Pygmalion effect -  chart

Another study called The Power of the Pygmalion Effect, conducted by Ulrich Boser (senior associate at the American Center for Progress), Megan Wilhelm (graduate student in sociology at the University of Maryland), and Robert Hanna ( senior analyst at the American Center for Progress), published in 2014, also concluded that higher teacher expectations favored student success.

The Pygmalion Effect on the Workplace

If the Pygmalion effect works in the school environment, it can be assumed that it works in other environments, including the work environment. In fact, in his article Pigmalion in Management, published in Harvard Business Review in 2003, the American management consultant, J. Sterling Livingston, reports, among others, the case in which he studied the effectiveness of managers bank branches of the West Coast Bank, with more than 500 branches. Managers who have had their lending authority reduced because of the high rates of loss have progressively become less effective. In order to avoid further loss of authority, they started to make only “safe” loans. This action resulted in business losses for competing banks, and a relative decline in deposits and profits at their branches. Thus, in response to their supervisors ‘low expectations, which had reduced their credit authority, they behaved in a way that led to greater credit losses, and their supervisors’ expectations became self-fulfilling prophecies.

Human relations guru, Dale Carnegie, wrote in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, a best seller that has sold over 15 million copies, that one of the principles for becoming a good leader is to give a good reputation to another person, so that they are interested in maintaining it.

So treat people the way you would like them to behave, encourage them, show support and (really) believe in their competence. Making an analogy with a jumper, increase the height of the bar, to challenge people to reach a higher mark, and achieve greater goals, but, be careful not to place the bar too high above the current mark of the person, as this may have an opposite effect, discouraging and frustrating. The stimulus must always be within reasonability, and thus, good results can appear!