Pygmalion Effect : Management Funda; V3 Issue 3

In an interesting study researchers looked at 12 separate research studies involving employees and their supervisors from different work settings, a total of 2,874 participants. Each study randomly assigned employees to two groups.

Supervisors were told that one group of employees had considerably greater potential thus creating a positive attitude among supervisors about one group of employees who were basically no different from other group of employees. Result? With only two exceptions employees in the former group responded with greater productivity. This was because of the Pygmalion Effect.

What is Pygmalion Effect and how did it originate?
Pygmalion Effect is essentially the power of others’ expectations. Positive expectations produce positive results and vice-versa. Typically every supervisor has expectations of the people who report to him and these expectations get communicated consciously or unconsciously. When people perceive expectations about their performance from their supervisors they perform in ways that are consistent with the expectations they have picked up.

J. Sterling Livingston, wrote on the Pygmalion Effect in the ‘Harvard Business Review’ in his article, ‘Pygmalion in Management’, "The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them," and that unskilled supervisors "leave scars on the careers of young workers, cut deeply into their self-esteem, and distort 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. " 

This concept has its roots in Greek mythology, when Pygmalion, a sculptor and prince of Cyprus made a statue of his ideal woman, whom he called Galatea, which came to life. The story was also the basis of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion”, later turned into the musical “My Fair Lady”. In Shaw’s play, Professor Henry Higgins claims he can take a flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, and turn her into a duchess. But, as Eliza herself points out to Higgins’ friend Pickering, it is not what she learns or does that determines whether she will become a duchess, but how she is treated.


Pygmalion Effect was initially successfully demonstrated by Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard University professor, and Leonore Jacobson, a school principal in a publication called ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’. At the beginning of the school year, they gave an intelligence test to all students at an elementary school. Then, they randomly selected 20% of the students without actually relying on their test results. Their teachers were told that those students showed "unusual potential for intellectual growth." Eight months later, they retested all the students. The 20% labled as having "unusual potential" showed significantly greater advancement than other children not singled out for the teachers' attention

Using the Pygmalion effect to get the best of people

Firstly reflect on what kind of expectations do you have from each of your team member. Determine what are the fundamental beliefs about people that you hold. There are some fundamental beliefs about people that help managers have a high performance expectation of their subordinates. They are…..

  •    Most people want to do a good job
  •    Most people can be trusted to do the right thing
  •    Most people, given the same information, will reach the same conclusion
  •    People are natural goal setters and achievers
  •    Most people will accept change

Knowing this can help you understand why you tend to have high or low expectations. Work towards changing those beliefs that prevent you from having high expectations of others. Next look at how do you communicate these expectations. Subtle communications from the manager like the tilting of heads, the raising of eye brows or the dilation of nostrils and not so subtle communications as listed below tell the employee what the expectations are.

Some examples of how managers communicate their expectations

Are you unwittingly communicating low expectations to people? If yes, gradually change the way you behave with such people.

Finally understand that people’s expectations of themselves also affect their performance. This is called the Galatea Effect. Employees who think they will succeed are most likely to succeed. So it goes without saying that any actions the supervisor takes to increase the employee's feelings of positive self-worth will help the employee's performance improve. Let’s look at some of the ways in which you can encourage positive, powerful self-expectations in employees.

   The best part of having positive performance expectation from their team members is that a team leader can even
     create a positive Galatea Effect i.e. Pygmalion Effect can cause Galatea Effect. Hold frequent, positive verbal
     interactions with the employee and communicate consistently your firm belief in the employee's ability to perform
     the job. Keep feedback positive and constructive.


  • Provide opportunities for the employee to experience increasingly challenging assignments.
  • Make sure he/she succeeds at each level before moving forward.
  • Enable the employee to participate in potentially successful projects that bring continuous improvement to the workplace.
  • Focus on the strengths. In a one-to-one coaching with employees emphasize improving what they do well rather than focusing on their weaknesses. Help them apply their strengths in ways that contribute positively to the organization.
  • Make sure the employee is receiving consistent messages from others around him/her. How you speak to others about him/her will mould their opinions about the person.
  • Demonstrate your sincere commitment to the employee's success and ongoing development.


The bottom line is both Pygmalion Effect and Galatea Effect can be powerful performance management tools. Your expectations of your people and their expectations of themselves are the key factors in how well they will perform at work. So believe in your team members. More often than not, they will meet or exceed your expectations. You just make sure that the expectations are high.