Pygmalion Effect: What is it and how to use it as a manager?

- Leadership

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An article by Management 3.0 Facilitator Crisevelis Acosta, an Agile & Lean believer and practitioner from Spain who helps organizations become flexible and customer-centric.

Do you believe that you can predict who among a group of people is going to be better at developing competencies? What implications could this have for people whose intellectual development has been predicted?

In this article we will review some theories that explain the phenomena around these questions, the so-called Pygmalion Effect, to understand how our predictions influence others’ performance and how this can be used in effective leadership and in team work.

Before going further, picture this, a mentor with two different mentees. Ahead of meeting them for the first time, the mentor has gotten some information about each one:

The first mentee, is brilliant, is a very successful person, every challenge that they start, they finish with glee.

The second mentee, well, this one is someone that struggles with every single challenge they face, their results are usually poor and low quality. 

With this information, the mentor has already made up their mind, and has predicted that the first mentee is going to be brighter and a faster learner than the second mentee.

In your opinion:

  • How will this prediction affect the relationship between the mentor and mentees?
  • How will this prediction affect the intellectual development of both mentees?
  • How could the mentor’s behavior be shaped by having set this prediction?

What is The Pygmalion Effect?

According to Rosenthal and Jacobson (1966), there is a phenomenon known as The Pygmalion Effect, whereby one person’s expectations of another’s behavior may come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rosenthal and Jacobson concluded this, after conducting an experiment in an elementary school.

In the experiment, it was suggested to the teachers that a number of the students (selected randomly) in all likelihood were exhibiting signs of a surge in intellectual development and growth.
In this experiment, students weren’t aware of either the experiment or the label of better intellectual potential. 

At the end of this study, Rosenthal and Jocobson (1966) obtained data that led them to believe that the teachers’ expectations helped in the improvement of intellectual growth of those who were, randomly, labeled as “special” students at the beginning of the study.

Also, after the study, a preliminary four-factor “theory” of the communication of the expectancy effects suggests that teachers (and perhaps clinicians, supervisors, and employers) who had been led to expect superior performance from some of their pupils (clients, trainees, or employees) tend to treat these “special persons” differently than they treat the remaining less-special persons in the four ways shown next (Rosenthal 1971; 1973; 1974 and especially, Harris and Rosenthal, 1985)

  1. Climate, “Teachers appear to create a warmer socio-emotional climate for their “special” students. This warmth appears to be at least partially communicated by nonverbal cues.”
  2. Feedback, “Teachers appear to give their “special” students more differentiated feedback, both verbal and non-verbal, as to how these students have been performing.
  3. Input, “Teachers appear to teach more material and more difficult material to their “special” students.” 
  4. Output, “Teachers appear to give their “special” students greater opportunities for responding. These opportunities are offered both verbally and non-verbally (e.g., giving a student more time in which to answer a teachers’ questions).”

Is the Pygmalion Effect true?

So, is it true that your expectations about others’ intellectual development can influence their performance or achievements?

According to Rosenthal, many studies have been conducted, using animals and humans as a subject, and also in different contexts (education, health, finance, companies), providing evidence that supports the existence of the Pygmalion Effect. 

What is a self-fulfilling prophecy? 

Kory Floyd (2009), describes it as a set of expectations that gives rise to behaviors that cause the expectation to come true, in other words, is when people unwillingly adapt their behavior and communication, so their expectation or prophecy becomes true. 

So, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, there is an expectation or prophecy, this expectation leads to a certain behavior (because of your conviction of the end result), and at the end, your behavior shapes the situation into the exact way you have predicted, so your expectation comes true.

There is a five steps cycle for a self-fulfilling prophecy (Gamble & Gamble, 2013)

  1. Developing an expectation of a person or event
  2. Expressing these expectations verbally or non-verbally (adjusting behavior)
  3. Others adjust their behavior to match yours
  4. Your expectations become reality
  5. The confirmation strengthens your original belief
The Pygmalion Effect, five steps cycle for a self-fulfilling prophecy

Is the Pygmalion Effect the same as a self-fulfilling prophecy?

As mentioned before, by definition “The Pygmalion Effect” is understood as a self-fulfilling prophecy, embedded in teachers’ expectations.

According to Gamble & Gamble (2005), there are two types of self-fulfilling prophecies:

  1. Self-imposed, when your expectations about yourself influence your behavior and your performance
  2. Other imposed, when others’ expectations influence your behavior and performance

So more specifically, “The Pygmalion Effect” is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the type “Other imposed”.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is described in the Management 3.0 Delegation and Empowerment module

Pygmalion Effect in the Workplace: How do you use the Pygmalion Effect as an effective leader? 

As a leader, one of the organizational views introduced in Management 3.0 you should take care of is “Develop Competencies”. 

Knowing about “The Pygmalion Effect” should help you to develop your competencies, to take advantage and become a true enabler of others’ development.

First of all, you might pay attention to your skills and beliefs system, to guarantee that your behavior and communication are oriented to generate the best outcome possible for others.

On top of that, you consciously need to change the way you describe people, starting from avoiding using comparative and superlatives adjectives (brighter, the best, etc.), which leads to expecting better or worse things from some people. 

As with almost everything, you need to start from yourself, to guarantee that as a leader you are a positive influence for those who share purpose and vision with you.

Let’s review some specific tips to take advantage of “The Pygmalion Effect” in your change and the positive influence of others.

First of all, take the time to take in “The Pygmalion Effect”, understand how relevant is your role in others’ intellectual development, and act accordingly.

What does this mean?

Knowing that your expectations shape your behavior and your behavior influence others’ intellectual development:

Be in control of your expectations, dedicate time to write and review your expectations about co-workers
Develop awareness of your behavior, because your actions, messages, body language, everything is a potential shaper of others’ performance
Avoid using comparative and superlatives adjectives in the description of co-workers 
Find your own adjective to describe unique people who are willing to learn, do their best, and are committed to the purpose and the vision you represent (curious, learner, padawan, etc). 
Commit to your competencies development, especially those competencies that would help you to improve your communication and assertiveness skills
Work on your belief system, the way you were told the world works is the source of the way you “label” and judge people, so you might need to work on this to improve your expectations and prophecies development.
And last but not least, work together with teams to generate awareness about “The Pygmalion Effect”

Pygmalion Effect in the Workplace: How to use the Pygmalion Effect in your daily work with teams

Now that we know about the “Pygmalion Effect” and how your expectations about others’ intellectual development could shape your behavior, and at the same time influence (positively/negatively) the intellectual development of those around you, let’s discuss how this could be used in our teams.

  1. Teach everyone about “The Pygmalion Effect” 
  2. Develop a culture of respect for diversity of the learning processes, learning styles, personal interests, and motivation, and design your own neutral labeling for the team members. How about everyone being labeled as a “Padawan”? Maybe you as a team could choose your own label as an Identity Symbol.
  3. Encourage the four factors “theory” of the communication of the expectancy effects
    1. Take your time to give and receive feedback
    2. Develop a knowledge system for generating and managing the best inputs (more and better information) for everyone
    3. Output, give others time to experiment and space for failure
    4. Climate, be sure to be in and contribute to the best collaborating environment, to support everyone’s intellectual development
  4. Be kind and respectful, and expect the best from everyone.

As we know, humans are social, and we live in and interact with each other, and those interactions may influence our behavior. On top of that, according to some studies these interactions influence our self-esteem, our self-perception, and our performance. 

Having the information about “The Pygmalion Effect” is the first step towards generating awareness, regardless of the positive and negative influence of our expectations on others’ development. With this in mind, we can take advantage and adjust our expectations and behavior to get better outcomes. 

It is especially relevant for leaders, taking into account the information reviewed throughout this article, to improve their competencies and at the same time to become better supporters of others’ development. 

Equally relevant is for teams having this information because among them might also appear the effects of the influence of expectations of others in people developing competencies (The Pygmalion Effect). 

So, I invite you to carefully review the tips shared before to start taking advantage of “The Pygmalion Effect” on your teams.


  • Rosenthal R. & Jacobson L (1992) Pygmalion in the classroom: Teachers Expectation and Pupils’ Intellectual development
  • Floyd, Kory, Interpersonal Communication, The whole story, New york McGraw Hill, 2009
  • Gamble, T. K., & Gamble, M. W. (2013). Interpersonal communication: Building connections together. Sage Publications.
  • Gamble, T. K., & Gamble, M. W. (2005). Contacix: Interpersonal communication. Sage Publications.
  • Header photo by Rodnae Productions via Pexels

One thought on "Pygmalion Effect: What is it and how to use it as a manager?"

  • William S Ratshefola says:

    This was so helpful to me and to understand the Pygmalion Effect better. Thank you

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