In 1964 a psychologist named Robert Rosenthal conducted an experiment in some elementary school classrooms. He told the teachers that a special test he’d administered to their students had the ability to predict which students were on the verge of great intellectual growth. He randomly selected some of their students as those who had been so identified by the test and told the teachers who they were. The teachers, who thought this was all legitimate, went on to teach the students based on the expectation set by the test outcomes.
As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations of these kids really did affect the students. “If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ,” he says.
The Pygmalion / Golem Effects
This psychological phenomenon identified by Robert Rosenthal is also known as the Pygmalion Effect. The name, interestingly, is based on an ancient Greek myth about Pygmalion who fell in love with one of his sculptures which, then, came to life. The psychological effect follows the mechanics diagrammed below:
In essence, people tend to become what we expect of them. That’s because our expectations influence how we behave toward people. They internalize the impact of our behavior and incorporate that into their beliefs about themselves which influence how they behave which reinforces our beliefs, expectations and behavior and around we go again. Pretty interesting and important. The higher our expectations, the better people perform.
The negative corollary to the Pygmalion effect is known as the Golem Effect. It simply says that low expectations have the same impact in the wrong direction. If we expect people to perform poorly, they will tend to live up to (or should I say down to) that expectation as well.
What Does This Mean for You?
I’ve written about setting expectations previously in this blog. This time, though, it’s not about letting people know what tasks and outcomes you expect from them. In this context, expectation is more about how successful you believe they will be at accomplishing those tasks or achieving those outcomes. It’s about your beliefs. Do you expect your team to win? Why or why not?
If you don’t expect your people to succeed, why don’t you? Do they need more training? Do they need better tools? Do you need different people? Or, do you need an adjustment to your beliefs, your expectations? This could be a challenging exercise, but, as John Maxwell says, “Everything worthwhile is uphill.” Take some time to reflect on each person on your team. What do you believe about them? What about the team as a whole? Where do those beliefs come from? Are they fair? What’s your evidence? Are they accurate? Are you producing the Pygmalion effect or the Golam effect with your people?
As a leader, you’re influencing your people by your actions. Those actions are fueled by your beliefs about them. How are your people doing? What do you expect?