Quality Magazine

Pygmalion Effect Transforms Leaders

January 1, 2010
Some leaders treat their people in a way that inspires them to superior performance, while others, unintentionally treat their people in a way that is demotivating and results in a lower performance than they are capable of achieving.

Remember reading Pygmalion in school? In case you are like me and it has been a while, Pygmalion was a prince in Greek mythology who sculpted a statue of the “ideal woman.” Pygmalion became so entranced with his creation that he fell in love with it. The goddess Aphrodite, hearing of Pygmalion’s plight, breathed life into the statue so he could have his ideal woman. George Bernard Shaw, centuries later, wrote his play Pygmalion, which centered around an ill-mannered girl who wanted to become a “lady.”

I recall the assignment given to us by Mr. Millard Shaw (no relation to George Bernard Shaw), “English teacher extraordinaire,” as I remember him. Mr. Shaw, always sharp-witted and thought provoking, challenged his senior class to find the meaning hidden in the passages of a wide range of subjects. These many years later I don’t recall the results of that assignment. I would say, however, that when I read the story again many years later, I undoubtedly had a different perspective-maybe that is the real result of experience.

Eliza Doolittle, the heroine in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, said, “You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

Some leaders, at least the really wise leaders, always treat their people in a way that inspires them to superior performance. Many leaders, though, like Professor Higgins in Pygmalion unintentionally treat their people in a way that is demotivating and results in a lower performance than they are capable of achieving.

These were among comments from a Harvard Business Review article by J. Sterling Livingston, titled “Pygmalion in Management.” According to Livingston, a former Harvard professor of business, supervisors have the power to stimulate and motivate employees by their attitudes and thus increase productivity. In retrospect, these words are certainly right on target. They apply to our children, our spouses, associates and friends as well as those whom we lead. If you want to succeed, treat people how we’d like them to be. People have a tendency to rise toward what is expected of them and often exceed those expectations.

This is why children turn out the way they do, and it determines the amount of respect and affection shared between spouses. It’s also why you get good service from one company and poor service from another. In a business partnership, dealing with fellow workers, children, etc., the challenge is never to let familiarity breed contempt. The fact that you are around someone a lot, and get to know him or her well, does not change the fact that the person is still good and capable. The person has not changed; you just know that person better.

If you want people to become better, or achieve more, treat people as you want them to become, and chances are that they will fulfill those expectations. This must be done with great care and with much wisdom. Urging children to live up to very high expectations can lead to frustration and disillusionment. This is the same with those you lead. What you must do is treat people-child or adult-with respect. Treat people in a way that says, to them, “I respect you as a capable, conscientious, likable person.” Then you can leave the performance up to them. We should not say to a child, “I expect you to get straight As,” or to a person you are responsible to lead, “I expect you to do a perfect job every time.” If the person is aware of the respect and affection you hold for them, the person will do their best, all things considered.

If a person is suffering from a neurosis, they may continue to act in a contrary or inexplicable manner. In this case, they might need professional help. As a general rule, however, it’s an excellent idea to remember Eliza Doolittle’s speech in Pygmalion: “....I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

Treat people as if you expect them to fail, and they will likely as not live up to your expectations. However, if your expectations are high, and if you demonstrate good leadership, their performances are likely to be high. As Sir Walter Bilbey said, “The employer generally gets the employees he deserves.”

This phenomenon has been studied in both the educational field and industry. Douglas Hall and David Berlew of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) studied 49 managers at American Telephone and Telegraph. They discovered that the success of these managers as measured by salary increases and the company’s formal performance appraisals depend largely on the company’s expectations of them. There was a 0.71 correlation between how much the company expected and how much the new managers contributed over a five-year period, according to Ginny Van Almsick.

Why are some managers consistently able to motivate others to reach higher standards of performance while other managers achieve mediocre performance? Livingston believed effective managers have more confidence in their own abilities. They expect more from themselves and consequently more from those around them. Effective managers have a confidence in their ability to inspire and motivate others to achieve greater results. Really, we might say that effective managers apply the Pygmalion effect on themselves.

A prime example of the Pygmalion effect is Peter Drucker’s “Theory X and Theory Y” management philosophy. In his book Management, Drucker’s “Theory X” managers assume people are lazy, dislike work, incapable of accepting responsibility and are motivated by the carrot and stick approach. On the other hand “Theory Y” managers assume people are self-motivated, seek responsibility and want achievement. According to Drucker, “Leadership is the lifting of a man’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a man’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a man’s personality beyond its normal limitations.”

Harry E. Humphreys, Jr., said, “We should place confidence in our employee. Confidence is the foundation of friendship. If we give it, we will receive it. Any person in a managerial position, from supervisor to president, who feels that his employee is basically not as good as he is, and who suspects his employee is always trying to put something over on him, lacks the necessary qualities for human leadership-to say nothing of human friendship.”

My memory fades from that time in Mr. Shaw’s senior English class and my high school analysis from reading Pygmalion. It is a safe bet, however, that it was not insightful and certainly did not take this direction. Applying the Pygmalion effect to yourself and to those around you is certainly one way in becoming more effective.