Pygmalion Effect
by Kausar Fahim


In the popular book, "Harvard Business Review on Managing People," one of the articles is by J.Sterling Livingston, who presents "Pygmalion in Management." I present you the gist of that article. Moreover, I encourage you to read the complete article on your own in order to gain more insights.

The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them. If managers’ expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor. It is as though there were a law that caused subordinates’ performance to rise or fall to meet managers’ expectations.

Cases available from scientific research now reveal:

  1. What managers expect of their subordinates and the way they treat them largely determines their performance and career progress.

  2. A unique characteristic of superior managers is the ability to create high performance expectations that subordinates fulfill.

  3. Less effective managers fail to develop similar expectations, and as a consequence, the productivity of their subordinates suffers.

  4. Subordinates, more often that not, appear to do what they believe they are expected to do.

Pygmalion effect is also noticed in the healing professions, where a physician’s or psychiatrist’s expectations can have a formidable influence on a patient’s physical or mental health. For instance, the havoc of a doctor’s pessimistic prognosis has often been observed. Again, it is well known that the efficacy of a new drug or a new treatment can be greatly influenced by the physician’s expectations – a result referred to by the medical profession as a “placebo effect.”

When an employee is treated by her manager as a super-person, she tries to live up to that image, and does what she knows a super-employee is expected to do. But, when an employee, with poor productivity records, is treated by her manager as not having “any chance” of success, this negative expectation also becomes a managerial self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is virtually impossible for a manager to mask her low expectations of her subordinates because the message usually is communicated unintentionally, without conscious action on her part. Indeed, managers often communicate most when they believe they are communicating the least - for example, the silent treatment communicates negative feelings even more effectively, at times, than a tongue-lashing does. Indifferent and noncommittal treatment, more often than not, is the kind of treatment that communicates low expectations and leads to poor performance.

In general, managers are more effective in communicating low expectations to their subordinates than in communicating high expectations to them, even though most managers believe exactly the opposite. Clearly, the way managers treat subordinates, not the way they organize them, is the key to high expectations and high productivity.

Managerial expectations must pass the test of reality before they can be translated into performance. Subordinates will not be motivated to reach high levels of productivity unless they consider the boss’s high expectations realistic and achievable. If they are encouraged to strive for unattainable goals, they eventually give up trying and settle for results that are lower than they are capable of achieving. In short, “dangling the carrot just beyond the donkey’s reach,” endorsed by many managers, is NOT a good motivational device.

The degree of motivation and efforts rises until the expectancy of success reaches 50%, and then begins to fall even though the expectancy of success continues to increase. No motivation or response is aroused when the goal is perceived as being either virtually certain or virtually impossible to attain.

What accounts for the difference between superior managers, who create high performance expectations that their subordinates fulfill, and weaker managers, who create low performance expectations that their subordinates fulfill too?

The answer, in part, seems to be that superior mangers have greater confidence than the weaker managers have in their own abilities to develop the talents of their subordinates. Contrary to what might be assumed, the high expectations of superior managers are based primarily on what they think about themselves – about their own ability to select, train, and motivate their subordinates. What managers believe about themselves subtly influences what they believe about their subordinates, what they expect of them, and how they treat them. If they have confidence in their abilities to develop and stimulate them to high levels of performance, they will expect much of them and will treat them with confidence that their expectations will be met. But, if they have doubts about their abilities to stimulate them, they will expect less of them and will treat them with less confidence.

Initial corporate expectations for performance (with real responsibility) mold subsequent expectations and behavior. Thus, initial bosses of new college hires must be the best in the organization. Unfortunately, however, most companies practice exactly the opposite. Although most top executives have not yet diagnosed the problem, industry’s greatest challenge by far is to rectify the underdevelopment, underutilization, and inefficient management and use of its most valuable resource – its young managerial and professional talent. According to me, the underlying causes of high attrition are underdevelopment and underutilization of a work force that has high career aspirations. Moreover, a “generation gap” between bosses and subordinates is another significant cause of breakdown. Many managers resent the abstract, academic language, and narrow rationalization characteristically used by recent graduates.

Industry has not developed effective first-line managers fast enough to meet its needs. As a consequence, many companies are under developing their most valuable resource – talented young men and women. They are incurring heavy attrition costs and contributing to the negative attitudes young people often have about careers in business.

The challenge is clear: to speed the development of managers who will treat subordinates in ways that lead to high performance and career satisfaction. Managers not only shape the expectations and productivity of their subordinates, but also influence their attitudes toward their jobs and themselves. If managers are unskilled, they leave scars on the careers of young people, cut deeply into their self-esteem, and distort their image of themselves as human beings. But, if they are skillful and have high expectations, subordinates’ self-confidence will grow, their capabilities will develop, and their productivity will be high. More often than one realizes, the manager is Pygmalion.


The Author

Kausar Fahim Kausar Fahim is a thinker, technologist and software engineer residing in Bangalore, Karnataka, India. Visit for more of his work.
Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives

Copyright 2008 by Kausar Fahim. All rights reserved.

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