Believe in people and have high expectations of them (the Pygmalion Effect)

pygmalian3The Pygmalion Effect has its origins in Greek mythology. Pygmalion was a prince of Cyprus and a sculptor who created and fell in love with an ivory statue of his ideal woman. He pleaded with Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, to give life to his creation, and she obliged. Pygmalion married the woman and they had a perfect life together. He had expected the statue to be perfect in every way, and she fulfilled all his expectations.

English playwright George Bernard Shaw used this theme in his popular play Pygmalion. Lerner and Loewe adopted Shaw’s play to create the musical My Fair Lady. In these dramas, a genteel professor transforms a low-class Cockney woman into a lady fit for society primarily by believing in her and expecting the best of her.

The Pygmalion Effect suggests that people will act or behave in the way that others expect them to. One’s expectations of a person can eventually lead that person to behave and achieve in ways that confirm those expectations. It is similar to the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy. The effect can have both positive and negative outcomes—a person expected by his or her superiors to succeed will, but the opposite is also true. The effect is most commonly discussed in terms of education and the workplace, but it can also happen in any one-on-one relationship.

In education

Many studies have been conducted on the Pygmalion Effect in the classroom. Teachers who are given information that certain students are more likely to excel and achieve than other members of the class often find that those students do, in fact, perform better, even if they are not objectively advantaged.

For information on the famous Rosenthal-Jacobson study, go to

In business

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Sterling Livingston wrote: Some managers always treat their subordinates in a way that leads to superior performance. But most managers, unintentionally treat their subordinates in a way that leads to lower performance than they are capable of achieving. The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them. If managers’ expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor. It is as though there is a law that caused subordinates’ performance to rise or fall to meet managers’ expectations.

For the entire article go to

In relationships

Zig Ziglar tells the story of a famous major league baseball player who was speaking to inmates in a prison. One of the inmates asked him, “How did you become a professional ball player?” The pro athlete said, “When I was a child my father would play softball with me in the backyard. Often, when I would throw or catch a ball or swing the bat he would say, ‘You are so good at baseball. Someday you’re going to be a professional baseball player.’ And here I am, a professional baseball player.” The inmate who had asked the question said, “When I was a child, my father told me that I was good for nothing and someday I would end up in prison. And here I am.”

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]

What? – Often, people will live up to or down to our expectations of them.
So what? – As a parent, friend, or manager, do you have high or low expectations of others?
Now what? – Have high expectations of others.

Leaders – Carefully consider how you relate to your team members. Do you use the Pygmalion effect to your and their advantage?


teamsNot finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare. If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time. Lencioni

Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, often asks her students: “Try to picture Thomas Edison as vividly as you can. Think about where he is and what he’s doing. Is he alone?”

Most students picture Edison as an eccentric scientist tinkering around his laboratory all by himself. Interestingly, Dweck writes, “Edison was not a loner. For the invention of the light bulb, he had thirty assistants, including well-trained scientists, often working around the clock in a corporate-funded state-of-the-art laboratory.”

Most significant achievements are accomplished through teams of people. Someone is leading the team, but it is the collective effort that achieves.

A leader’s main job is to assemble, develop, and empower a great team that focuses on a worthy vision. Peter Drucker suggests that good leaders always use plural pronouns when discussing how work will be done: “The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say ‘I.’ And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say ‘I.’ They don’t think ‘I.’ They think ‘we’; they think ‘team.’ They understand their job is to make the team function.”

The effective leader knows that:

  • The old “command-and-control” leadership style has been replaced by one that relies on teamwork and consensus building.
  • “All of us are smarter than one of us” so collaborative decision making is best.
  • Today’s knowledge workers want to be engaged in meaningful work and respected for their contributions so they are given autonomy and support.
  • Our world is so complex, no one person has enough knowledge or experience to function well, alone.
  • Customers often have more insight into a company’s products and services than its employees do and are usually eager to share their thoughts. Collaborate with those outside your organization.
  • Diversity enhances the benefits of collaboration. When compiling your team, pursue diversity in age, giftedness, personality, gender, ethnicity and background. Allow the diversity to express itself. Gary Heil says, “Recruiting a diverse workforce and then encouraging employees to act as a homogeneous group, where the tendency to agree interferes with critical thinking, is not success. It is merely a waste of human talent.”

Margaret Mead, one of our country’s most famous anthropologist, once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

You don’t have to do it alone, and, it’s best not to.

Speak up

Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.—Hitchens

A woman checked into the hospital to have a tonsillectomy, and the surgical team erroneously removed a portion of her foot. How could this tragedy happen? In fact, why is it that ninety-eight thousand hospital deaths each year stem from human error? In part it’s because many healthcare professionals are afraid to speak their minds. In this case, no less than seven people wondered why the surgeon was working on the foot, but said nothing. Meaning didn’t flow because people were afraid to speak up [Patterson and Grenny, Crucial Conversations, pg. 22].

Two problems led to this debacle: an intimidating leader and intimidated followers. In a previous post I encouraged leaders to embrace robust dialogue among team members—that would eliminate the first problem. In this essay, let’s think about what we should do if robust dialogue is disallowed and something bad is about to happen if we don’t speak up.

It takes a lot of courage and emotional fortitude to confront that which is unfair, inaccurate, corrupt, foolish, wrong, ignorant, misdirected, inappropriate, and/or evil; but we have a moral imperative to do so.

Sometimes there is a price to pay. Once in my career, I spoke up about a dysfunctional area of the organization and I was summarily dismissed. Previously, a friend had advised me to always have six months of “go-to-hell money” in my savings account. “That way, if your job becomes unbearable,” he said, “you can tell your boss what you think and then walk away.” His advice came in handy that day.

Become skillful at truth-telling. Learn to speak the undiluted truth in a palatable way and at the right time. Don’t be unkind, mean, or crass (some people, armed with the truth, think they have a 007 license to kill) but do speak up.

I’ll end this post with another sad story that illustrates the dangers of intimidating leadership and silent, repressed followers.

Alexander the Great was once drinking with his chief officers at a party, when, in a drunken stupor, he began arguing with his best friend and faithful soldier, Clitus. Alexander impetuously threw a spear at his friend, hit him square in the chest, and killed him. It stunned the entire group. Alexander couldn’t believe what he had just done and immediately went to his private chamber.

Soon, Alexander’s officers approached him one at a time to try to console him. Aristander told him, “It’s just fate.” Callisthenes said, “We needed that.” Anaxarchus surmised, “Good will come from it.” No one had the emotional fortitude to tell Alexander the Great that what he had done was a terrible deed.

A contemporary historian noted, “In this way, they consoled his soul, but corrupted his character.”

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]


What? – There are times when it is wrong to remain silent.
So what? – Develop the emotional fortitude to speak up when you should.
Now what? – Read Sam Harris’ book Lying. It presents a good case for always being honest. Then, begin to speak up when situations demand it.

Leaders – Do your team members have the freedom to speak up and express dissenting views? Do you seek honest feedback or squelch it?

Develop your version of the Apgar Score

Apgar-new.001Dr. Virginia Apgar invented the Apgar score in 1952 as a simple and replicable method to quickly and summarily assess the health of newborn children immediately after birth. The Apgar scale is determined by evaluating the newborn on five simple criteria (Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration) on a scale from zero to two, then summing up the five values. The resulting Apgar score ranges from zero to 10.

The test is generally done at one and five minutes after birth, and may be repeated later if the score is and remains low. Scores 7 and above are generally normal, 4 to 6 fairly low, and 3 and below are generally regarded as critically low.

The Apgar score is a quick and easy way to evaluate important traits, and it’s used in virtually every hospital in the world today.

It’s been said that all good ideas are borrowed and all great ideas are stolen. I recommend we “borrow” this good idea by developing a personalized version of the Apgar score.

For instance, a friend of mine is an executive vice president of a major corporation. Several years ago he was asked to take over the lowest-performing division in the company, which had more than 6,000 employees. He quickly determined that one major problem was the high rate of employee attrition. The high turnover rate not only disrupted business but every employee who left cost the company almost $50k (the cost of hiring and training an employee).

Instead of sitting behind his desk and trying to fix the problem from afar, he visited his team members out in the field where work takes place. He asked a lot of questions and listened well. He soon developed what he called “our personalized version of the Apgar Score.” He simply asked, “What common characteristics do our top employees share, and in particular, what is the profile of a worker who stays a long time with the company?”

Within a few months he had identified six attributes and behavioral characteristics of a successful and stable worker. His division adopted this method of scoring as the main tool for evaluating potential employees. Following every interview, the candidate would be given a score by those who interviewed him or her and only those who rated high in all six areas were hired. Within 12 months the attrition rate was reduced by 60 percent and the division went from being last to consistently being in the top two divisions in the country.

An Apgar score-type tool can be developed for most industries and positions and is a reliable predictor of success. It can be used to both evaluate prospective team members as well as train current team members. For instance:

  • School principals develop an “Apgar score” for effective teachers.
  • Sales managers, identify key traits of successful salespersons.
  • Supervisors of computer programmers, develop a profile of the best in the field.

I think we’ll discover that some predictors of success for any given position are fairly obvious; most are hidden in plain sight. They just need to be identified and respected.

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]


What? – For most positions, predictors of success can be identified.
So what? – Hire people who score high on these predictors of success and your organization will improve.
Now what? – Create a personalized “Apgar score” for various areas of your life.

Leaders – Years ago, I developed a set of criteria for effective leaders. I identified 12 indispensable skills that one must master in order to lead well. Click here for a list of the 12 skills. Go to for more information on training opportunities.