The term Pygmalion Effect comes from George Bernard Shaw’s classical myth Pygmalion. Phonetics Professor Henry Higgins tutors the very Cockney Eliza Doolittle, not only in the refinement of speech, but also in the refinement of her manner. The end result produces a very ladylike Miss Doolittle. At one point in the story Eliza Doolittle comments on how well the professor treats her and the effect it has had: “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated. I shall 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.”
Pfeffer relates this phenomenon to leadership: “There is a large body of research showing the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy, also called the Pygmalion Effect, on performance. Independently of skill, intelligence, or even past performance, when teachers believe that their students will perform well, they do. Independently of other factors, when leaders believe their subordinates will perform well, these positive expectations lead to better performance. This research suggests that overall performance of a group can be increased when leaders expect everyone to do well.”
For instance, in a study in an Israeli boot-camp, instructors were told that based on information from a battery of tests on an incoming group of soldiers, it was possible to predict with 95% accuracy which one-third of the soldiers had high command potential. The soldiers were then randomly assigned to the high, regular, or unknown conditions. At the end of 15 weeks, soldiers who leaders believed would have high levels of performance did far better on objective performance tasks (administered by instructors who were not informed about the experiment).
Heil encourages us to, “Have high expectations of people, design systems that support their efforts, and let them know how important they are by both your words and actions, and ordinary individuals will accomplish extraordinary things. We simply don’t treat people as if we expected a great deal from them— and as a result, we often get what we expect.