“I shall always 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.” Eliza Doolittle, Pygmalion by GB Shaw. Karl Morris discusses the Pygmalion effect.
As we have discussed in articles before, your success or failure in life is not just down to the obvious things such as effort and application. We can be putting in both time and effort but sometimes seemingly invisible forces appear to be conspiring against us and affecting our business. Have you ever heard of the Pygmalion effect? Until recently I was blissfully unaware of an issue that COULD have profound implications for us as individuals and certainly if you are in the business of coaching or developing people then the Pygmalion effect needs to be understood and more importantly utilised.
In a study conducted by Don Eden at the University of Tel Aviv a sample of 105 soldiers in the Israeli Army with at least eleven years of experience were selected onto a combat command course. The instructors were four experienced training officers. Each instructor was allocated about 25 of the trainees.
Four days prior to the commencement of the course the instructors were given a brief about their students. They we told that all the soldiers had been thoroughly tested and given ratings of CP (command potential). They were told: based on the CP scores we have designated each trainee as having ‘High CP’ (high command potential), ‘Regular CP’ (regular command potential) or ‘Unknown CP’, the latter due to incomplete records.
Each instructor was given the individual details of each soldier and their SPECIFIC CP rating. The groups had an equal number of the three categories. During the training the instructors were asked to rate their soldiers CP on a scale during the training process. The soldiers that had been given a High CP were rated about FIFTEEN points higher on a conventional 100 point grade scale!
The instructors did NOT know the soldiers had been RANDOMLY assigned and had never actually given any CP score. The Army instructors graded the soldiers who they EXPECTED to be superior with higher marks even though the groups were randomly assigned. They thought they were better because that is what they expected to happen. This has been shown to work both ways in the sense that if a teacher is told they have bright students they will treat them accordingly and better results will follow also if the student has an expectation that the teacher will produce great results then again often this will be the outcome.
The Pygmalion effect requires someone to internalise the expectations of others. It is a form of a self-fulfilling prophecy and in an educational setting students with poor expectations internalise their negative label and those with positive labels succeed accordingly. This effect has also been called the Rosenthal effect from the work of Robert Rosenthal who conducted various experiments to support the idea that reality can be influenced by the expectations of others.
So what does all of this mean to you as an individual and the impact you will have on other people?
Without a doubt the Pygmalion effect is something we ignore at our peril because as all of the studies show, if you have a negative expectation about someone’s ability then that very expectation WILL affect how they perform for you. By the same measure a person’s expectation of you will have an impact on them and how they subsequently perform.
No pressure here then, in the real world! What could you do practically to take advantage of this incredible phenomenon?
I think one of the first things you can do in whatever environment you work is to create the most POSITIVE expectation of what a person COULD be capable of doing. Now I know you are probably saying you do that anyway, but I think if we are all honest we tend to creep into the labelling process and ASSUME someone isn’t going to improve. We buy into the labels given to other people.
Give yourself a mental spring clean and commit to making a fresh start with how you look at others and your perception of their capabilities. I think one of the most powerful words in the English language is the word POSSIBLE and as tough as it may be sometimes begin to see other people through the lens of possible as opposed to the fixed label of ‘that’s the way they are’.
For yourself check your OWN expectations. What are you unconsciously DECIDING you can and can’t do perhaps based on the subliminal messages received from others? What limits are you placing on the possibilities of your business? Upgrade your own expectations of yourself.
If you are in the business of helping and coaching others, then get the Pygmalion effect to work as much in your favour, as possible. If you have had success with people and helped them improve then make sure you let people know about it.
I remember once being with British Open golf winner Darren Clarke when we went on a winter training camp to Las Vegas and he went to see his then swing coach Butch Harmon. As you walk into Butch’s teaching bay you are faced with walls covered in success stories, the wins with the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and as you look around you can’t help feel the words you are going to hear from this man WILL make a difference to you and your game.
Before Butch utters a single word the odds are stacked in his favour as a result of your own subconscious expectations. We are not talking about style over substance, this isn’t about being a braggart or bending the truth but if people see you have had success with others in the area THEY want to improve, then an expectation you can help them will set in. None of this guarantees success of course, but it is just another example of those one percent issues adding up to tip the balance in your favour as opposed to having subtle influence work against you.