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The Pygmalion Effect
Human Resources » Knowledge Management

Chrm Message From: alok sehgal Total Posts: 24 Join Date: 08/06/2009
Rank: Executive Post Date: 11/07/2009 06:12:12 Points: 120 Location: India

The Pygmalion Effect - Belief in potential creates potential

All it takes is really believing. Supervisors can create better employees just by believing in them. This is even truer when working with underachievers.

If you tell a grammar school classroom teacher that a child is bright, the teacher will be more supportive, teach more difficult material, allow more time to answer questions, and provide more feedback to that child. The child receiving this attention and basking in the teacher's belief learns more and is better in school. It does not matter if the child is actually bright. All that matters is that the teacher believes in the child. This is also true of managers and workers.

This uniquely human phenomenon is called the Pygmallion Effect. It is a persistently held belief in another person such that the belief becomes a reality. The person believed in, being believed, becomes the person whom they are perceived to be. The self full filling prophecy. Did you ever notice that there are some people with whom we naturally feel comfortable? Who think our ideas are great. When they listen to us, we express ourselves clearly and are able to make ideas ring with clarity and insight. This is because, believing we are bright, they see us in this light. We, knowing how they feel about us, work hard to make sure they are satisfied with our answers.

The opposite is also true. There are people with whom we are not comfortable and who we believe do not like us. We avoid these people and do not do our best when we are around them. With these people we are hesitant and much less articulate. Most of the time we are less likely to try hard to get them to understand our point of view. We are victims of a label that has been placed on us by another.

What the Research Says

This is also true in the supervisor/employee relationship.Researchers looked at 12 separate research studies from different work settings, involving a total of 2,874 participants, and using a technique called meta analysis. All studies involved employees and their supervisor (the person who was responsible to oversee and evaluate their work). Each study randomly assigned employees to two groups and told supervisors that one group of employees had considerably greater potential than the other group. Thus, a positive attitude was fostered on the part of supervisors about one group of employees who were basically no different than other employees.

With only two exceptions employees in the groups about whom the supervisors were given positive information responded with greater productivity. The magnitude of these gains seemed to be dependent on the circumstances of the work relationship. The greatest gains were seen in military training settings. The researchers suspect that this is because in the military it is easier to control the information supervisors receive. Whereas, in a business situation word of mouth and reputation may bleed into the situation making the received positive information received by the supervisor less believable. However, looking at findings in schools there seems to be something that happens in a learning situation that is different from what happens in a work situation. It is possible that a positive attitude on the part of supervisors may have a greater effect on learning than it does on work productivity.

The second greatest gains were gotten in the situations were disadvantaged workers (those that for whatever reason were less likely to be successful) were randomly assigned to two groups. The group about whom the supervisor was given positive information made significant gains over the group about whom the supervisor was not given positive information. It is suspected that people with low self-esteem and self-efficacy are more likely to respond to positive feedback. This indicates that supervisors have the potential to create high performing employees. All that is needed is for them to believe that the employee has potential, the Pygmalion Effect. This is probably because the employee is more fully engaged and motivated when working for a positive thinking supervisor allowing the organization to fully tap into his or her capabilities.

Fewer gains were gotten when the supervisors had less chance to be with subordinates, such as in a sales situation when employees work independently and away from the supervisor. Women supervisors were less likely to be affected by the Pygmalion effect. It was observed that women, regardless of their beliefs, seemed to treat employees equally. Therefore, the group of employees about whom a women supervisor was given positive information made less significant gains over the other group. This was even truer when the supervisor and all the employees were women.

One Way to Improve a Workforce

The Pygmalion effect could be an important key to creating or improving a work force. Everything should be done to create a highly positive attitude about employees in the minds of supervisors and employees should feel that their supervisors and the organization believe in their potential as people.

HR departments should present new employees to supervisors in a positive light while highlighting the new employee's potential and making sure that the supervisor and the work group have a clear expectation that the new employee will make a significant impact on the work group's ability to succeed. Supervisors should be trained in how to impart a positive motivating attitude that fosters a belief in the employee's ability to perform. Employees should have a clear understanding that there is no question of them performing well. Employees should be given training opportunities to bring out potential rather than working on weaknesses. Over all, the organization should strive to create an understanding among its employees that their potential is great and that all is needed is for that potential to be brought out.

Ancient Greek mythology tells us that Pygmalion, who was the king of Cyprus, carved a statue of a perfect woman and through his belief and desire along with help from the goddess of Venus the statue came alive.

Meta-analysis is a statistical method of combining the results of several different studies by using statistical corrections, which is widely accepted as a valid procedure for determining the value of a line of research on a particular subject.


Alok Sehgal