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You Get the Performance You Expect

I recently re-read some research on the Pygmalion Effect and it made a sufficient impact on me to think that it would be useful to share more widely – as a reinforcer for those of you who already know and (hopefully) apply it, as well as for those of you who have not yet heard of this psychological phenomenon.

The Pygmalion Effect says that the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform. So, as a leader, if you believe that an individual has the ability to deliver a high level of performance, when you give them the opportunity to demonstrate this, they are more likely to rise to this challenge.

Studies carried out in schools, the military and business show that, in scientifically controlled conditions, where a teacher, commanding officer or manager is led to believe they are working with a group of more talented people, even if they aren’t, they will consciously or subconsciously treat them differently from those people who they believe to have less talent.  The net result is that the group of ‘talented’ people performs to a higher level.

This has profound implications for leaders and organisations.  How many people in your team do you see as high performers compared with lower level performers?  Have you ever thought about how your inherent belief about the ability of an individual might translate into the way you treat them and therefore the level of performance you expect them to deliver?  According to the Pygmalion Effect, if you believe that someone is only capable of average work, you may subconsciously treat them in a way that gives out a signal to that effect.  Then, surprise surprise, you get a mediocre level of performance which serves to reinforce your belief – and so the vicious circle / self-fulfilling prophecy continues.

What would happen if you ‘wiped the slate clean’ and looked at all of your people as having particular strengths and therefore being capable of delivering high quality work – albeit perhaps in different ways?  What would happen if you started to expect a high level of performance from all of your people and gave them work that reinforced that belief?  Is it possible that some people (who you may have previously ‘written off’ due to past experience or feedback from other people that has coloured your view) could prove to be potential stars and deliver performance that starts to question your previously held belief?

I realise that applying this approach is asking you to adapt what may be quite strongly-held views about the capability of some individuals in your team, and that won’t be easy.  But if you believe the research, the expectations we have about people do have a dramatic impact on what we notice and how we treat them.  Simply becoming more aware of your beliefs and choosing to have a go at looking at things with a new pair of eyes might yield some significant benefits for you, the individual and the team.

I believe you have great ability as a leader, so I see no reason why you can’t take on this challenging piece of work and do it brilliantly.  Are you ready to put the Pygmalion Effect to the test?


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