The 2 Most Important Management Secrets: Pygmalion and Galatea Effects

The Power of the Supervisor's Expectations and the Power of Your Own

When the Pygmalion effect is used to expect positive outcomes from employees, they succeed.
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Your expectations of employees and their expectations of themselves are the key factors in how well people perform at work. Known as the Pygmalion effect and the Galatea effect, respectively, the power of expectations cannot be overestimated. Whether applied consciously or unconsciously, the expectations affect the productivity and contribution of your employees.

The Pygmalion effect and the Galatea effect were first identified while measuring the effect of expectations on elementary-age schoolchildren.

According to J. Sterling Livingston, writing for the "Harvard Business Review," "Self-fulfilling prophecies, it turns out, are just as prevalent in offices as they are in elementary school classrooms. If a manager is convinced that the people in her group are first-rate, they’ll reliably outperform a group whose manager believes the reverse—even if the innate talent of the two groups is similar."

Sounds exciting and intriguing? You bet. These are the fundamental principles that you can apply to performance expectations and their outcome: potential performance improvement at work.

The Pygmalion Effect: The Power of the Manager's Expectations

You can summarize the Pygmalion effect, often known as the power of expectations, by considering that:

  • Every supervisor has expectations of the people who report to him or her.
  • Supervisors communicate these expectations consciously or unconsciously whenever they communicate in any manner with an employee.
  • People pick up on or consciously or unconsciously read and experience these expectations from their supervisor.
  • People perform in ways that are consistent with the expectations they have picked up on from the supervisor.

The Pygmalion effect was described by Livingston even earlier in the September/October 1988 "Harvard Business Review." "The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them," Livingston said in his article "Pygmalion in Management."

The Pygmalion effect enables staff to excel in response to the manager’s message that they are capable of success and expected to succeed. The Pygmalion effect can also undermine staff performance when the subtle communication from the manager tells them the opposite.

These cues are often subtle. As an example, the supervisor fails to praise a staff person's performance as frequently as he praises the performance of others. In another example, the supervisor talks less to a particular employee. In another instance, the manager fails to acknowledge the contributions of all of the members of a team, thanking just a couple of key people.

Livingston went on to say about the supervisor, "If he is unskilled, he leaves scars on the careers of the young men (and women), cuts deeply into their self-esteem and distorts 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. More often than he realizes, the manager is Pygmalion."

Can you imagine how performance would improve if your supervisors communicate positive thoughts about people to people?

If the supervisor actually believes that every employee has the ability to make a positive contribution in the workplace, the telegraphing of that message, either consciously or unconsciously, positively affects employee performance.

The effect of the supervisor gets even better. When the supervisor holds positive expectations about people, she helps individuals improve their self-concept, and thus their self-esteem. Employees who are held in high esteem by their supervisor tend to live up to their potential for contribution and succeed in the workplace.

People believe that they can succeed and contribute, and their performance then rises to the level of their own expectations—to create your best, most successful, superior employees

The Galatea Effect: The Power of Self-Expectations

Even more powerful than the Pygmalion effect, the Galatea effect is a compelling factor in employee performance. The manager who can assist employees to believe in themselves and in their efficacy has harnessed a powerful performance improvement tool.

You've heard of the often repeated and referenced words, "self-fulfilling prophecy." Applied as the Galatea effect, these words mean that the individual's opinion about her ability and her self-expectations about her performance largely determine her performance.

If an employee thinks she can succeed, she will likely succeed.

Consequently, any actions the supervisor can take that increase the employee's feelings of positive self-worth will help the employee's performance improve. 

The intention is not to oversimplify this concept. Many other factors also contribute to the level of an employee's performance, including your company culture, the employee's life experiences, education, family support, and relationships with co-workers. However, positive supervision is one of the key factors that will keep good employees on the job.

How to Encourage Powerful Self-Expectations in Your Employees

These are ways in which you can encourage positive, powerful self-expectations in an employee:

  • Provide opportunities for an employee to experience increasingly challenging assignments. Make sure that he or she succeeds at each level before moving forward.
  • Enable the employee to participate in potentially successful projects that bring continuous improvement to the workplace.
  • Provide one-to-one coaching with the employee. This coaching should emphasize improving what the employee does well rather than focusing on the employee's weaknesses. Build upon what the employee already does successfully rather than focusing your energy on building weak areas of skill.
  • Provide developmental opportunities that reflect what the employee is interested in learning. Sure, you need to provide developmental opportunities that also reflect what the business needs from the employee. You need to strike a balance that also honors the employee's needs and wishes.
  • Assign a successful senior employee to play a developmental mentoring role with the employee. Mentoring is an excellent use for your more senior employees, most of whom are anxious to share what they have learned before they retire. Keep their knowledge available.
  • 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 developmental where possible.
  • Make sure the employee is receiving consistent messages from other supervisory personnel. How you speak to others about the employees who report to you powerfully molds their opinions of what a particular employee can contribute and do. In an extended Pygmalion effect, the expectations of other senior leaders, managers, and co-workers affect the employee's self-esteem.
  • Project your sincere commitment to the employee's success and ongoing development. You need to frequently tell the employee of your confidence about these matters.

Harness the power of the employee's self-expectations to ensure powerful, productive, improving, and successful work performance. You'll be happy and feel rewarded when the employees exceed your expectations—and theirs.