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The Pygmalion Effect: The Power of the Supervisor's Expectations

The Two Most Important Management Secrets: The Pygmalion and Galatea Effects

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Smiling, beautiful black woman holds hamd out to interviewee.

Employees Live Up to the Supervisor's Expectations

Steve Cole

Your expectations of people and their expectations of themselves are the key factors in how well people perform at work. Known as the Pygmalion effect and the Galatea effect, respectively, the power of expectations cannot be overestimated.

These are the fundamental principles you can apply to performance expectations and potential performance improvement at work.

You can summarize the Pygmalion effect, often known as the power of expectations, by considering:

  • Every supervisor has expectations of the people who report to him.
  • Supervisors communicate these expectations consciously or unconsciously.
  • People pick up on, or consciously or unconsciously read, these expectations from their supervisor.
  • People perform in ways that are consistent with the expectations they have picked up on from the supervisor.

The Pygmalion effect was described by J. Sterling Livingston in the September/October, 1988 Harvard Business Review. "The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them," Livingston said in his article, Pygmalion in Management.

The Pygmalion effect enables staff to excel in response to the manager’s message that they are capable of success and expected to succeed. The Pygmalion effect can also undermine staff performance when the subtle communication from the manager tells them the opposite.

These cues are often subtle. As an example, the supervisor fails to praise a staff person's performance as frequently as he praises others. The supervisor talks less to a particular employee.

Livingston went on to say about the supervisor, "If he is unskilled, he leaves scars on the careers of the young men (and women), cuts deeply into their self-esteem and distorts their image of themselves as human beings. But if he is skillful and has high expectations of his subordinates, their self-confidence will grow, their capabilities will develop and their productivity will be high. More often than he realizes, the manager is Pygmalion."

Can you imagine how performance will improve if your supervisors communicate positive thoughts about people to people? If the supervisor actually believes that every employee has the ability to make a positive contribution at work, the telegraphing of that message, either consciously or unconsciously, will positively affect employee performance.

And, the effect of the supervisor gets even better than this. When the supervisor holds positive expectations about people, she helps individuals improve their self-concept and thus, self-esteem. People believe they can succeed and contribute and their performance rises to the level of their own expectations.

Take a look at the Galatea effect to learn more.

 

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