HR Management & Compliance

Expectations: The Power of Pygmalion and Galatea in the Workplace

Managers’ expectations of their employees—often expressed in subtle ways—are key factors in how the employees perform and how long they stay, says today’s expert, Susan M. Heathfield.

It’s called “the self-fulfilling prophecy.” If you have high expectations of your employees, they will change their behavior to meet those expectations, thus fulfilling the prophecy.

And, of course, the reverse is also true—if you have low expectations, employees will likely live down to them, says consultant Susan M. Heathfield, HR expert for the website

This “Pygmalion Effect,” as it’s called, has its roots in Greek mythology, when Pygmalion made a statue of a goddess, which came to life. Over the years, it’s been featured in plays (“Pygmalion,” by George Bernard Shaw), musicals (“My Fair Lady,” based on Shaw’s play), and movies (“Pretty Woman”).

The first widespread appreciation of the effect came from the publication of Pygmalion in the Classroom, which reported on experiments carried out by Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard University professor, and Leonore Jacobson, a school principal.

They gave an intelligence test to all of the students at an elementary school at the beginning of the school year. Then, they randomly selected 20 percent of the students—without any reliance on their test results—and told their teachers that those students showed “unusual potential for intellectual growth.”

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Eight months later, they retested all the students. The 20 percent labeled as having “unusual potential” showed significantly greater advancement than other children not singled out for the teachers’ attention.

The Pygmalion Effect is just as strong in the workplace, says Heathfield. Here’s how it goes:

  • Every supervisor has expectations of the people on his or her team.
  • Team members pick up on, or consciously or unconsciously read, those expectations from a supervisor.
  • Team members perform in ways consistent with the perceived expectations.

Positive expectations produce positive results. However, in the opposite case, staff performance is undermined when subtle communications from the manager tell the employee that he or she is not expected to do a good job. Such clues might be, for example, not praising one employee as frequently as other members of the team, or just spending less time with one of the team members.

Heathfield quotes J. Sterling Livingston, writing on the Pygmalion Effect in the Harvard Business Review, that unskilled supervisors “leave scars on the careers of young workers, cut deeply into their self-esteem, and distort their image of themselves as human beings.”

And what of the related Galatea Effect? (Galatea was the name given to the mythical statue that came to life and became the lover of Pygmalion.) This refers to the concept that employees’ expectations about themselves influence their performance. That is, employees who think they will succeed likely do succeed.

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This effect is “even more powerful” than the Pygmalion effect, Heathfield believes. The manager who can assist employees to believe in themselves and in their efficacy, harnesses a powerful performance improvement tool.

In the next Advisor, Heathfield’s specific recommendations for encouraging the Pygmalion effect in your workplace.


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