This is a brief post on the theory called the Pygmalion Effect. The idea is to introduce the concept & share resources to help you learn more if you're interested.


Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson showed that teacher’s expectations with students had an impact on how well these students do academically in a 1968 study.

Essence of the theory

The Pygmalion Effect states that a leader’s beliefs about their people’s ability turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a leader, when you have high expectations from someone they are more likely to meet those expectations and thus do well. On the contrary, when you have low expectations from someone, it is more likely that they will not do well and thus your low expectations will be proved right.

How it works

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Let's take the example of a classroom where a teacher has high expectations from a student. The teacher’s initial belief that this student is smart and hard-working alters his(teacher’s) behavior towards her(the student). He is likely to be more patient while explaining something to her, give her more opportunities to answer questions in class, help her to complete her answers, and give her more input and feedback. These actions from the teacher have a positive effect on the student’s belief about herself, she feels more confident in her abilities and enjoys the class and the subject more. This in turn changes her actions towards the teacher, she pays more attention in the class, does her homework better and works harder. When the teacher observes this behavior from the student it confirms his initial belief. He feels that he was indeed right about his instincts that this is a smart and hard-working student. This leads to further supportive actions from the teacher and so the positive loop continues and helps the student meet the high expectations the teacher initially had for her.

The same thing also works in a negative loop. For example, if a teacher has low expectations from a student, their actions give those signals to the student. This affects the student’s own belief about themselves and in turn their behavior towards the teacher. And that's how their performance dips which makes the teacher feel validated.

This effect applies equally to leaders and their team members and thus it is important to pay attention to your beliefs about others especially when in a leadership position.

Learn more about the Pygmalion Effect

Video - A video explainer
Video - Excerpt of an Interview with Rosenthal
Article - The Pygmalion Effect: an invisible nudge towards success

Ideas to apply the Pygmalion Effect

PS: These are our suggestions, use them as such or simply as a trigger to spark other creative ideas about how you can apply this theory!

As a team lead

  1. Think about what your beliefs and expectations are from your team members. Are they fair and healthy expectations or are they too high or too low? Remember that people will usually live up to your expectations for better or for worse.
  2. Be mindful of your beliefs about new members of your team & how their newness might be affecting what you expect from them. Take the time to think about the initial impressions & judgements you are forming about them. If you find negative ones, try and reframe them in a more positive light or at least in a neutral way. This may not be easy to do, but by doing this would significantly increase their chances of success. Remember that you do it not just in their interest but in the interest of your team and also your own self-interest as a leader.
  3. If someone on your team isn’t doing well, give them feedback and a clear message.   Then give them another opportunity starting from a blank slate. Approach this phase expecting that they will surely turn it around and do well. Your expectation that they will learn from their mistakes and do well is likely to increase their self belief and result in the right actions from them.
  4. If someone is consistently doing well on your team, give them feedback to encourage them & reinforce their good performance. And then work with them to set higher expectations from them. Expect them to pick up more responsibilities, learn new things and go deeper into their craft. Your belief that they can get to the next level of effectiveness and contribution on the team is likely to help them grow and get there.
  5. Work on adopting a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset towards your team. Think about this quote.
“Treat a human being as they are, and they will remain the same. Treat them as what they can become, and they will become what they can become.”  - Blaise Pascal, French philosopher and mathematician

As a team member

  1. Look to apply the Pygmalion Effect on yourself. Adopt a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset for yourself. Don’t see your abilities and skills as fixed but rather an always growing and evolving set.
  2. If you sense a dip in expectations and support from your team leads, have an honest conversation with them. Check if there is anything you need to understand better and clarify their expectations from you. Check if they have feedback for you that you have not understood or paid attention to.
  3. Much like how a team lead’s belief impacts an individual’s performance, in the same way your belief about another team member can also impact their performance. Be mindful of the beliefs you have of your team members, the more positive you keep them the better everyone’s likely to fare.

Cover image credit:  Steve Johnson on Unsplash

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