The Pygmalion Effect

How higher expectations lead to higher performance.



According to the Roman poet Ovid, the sculptor Pygmalion could look at a piece of stone and see the sculpture trapped inside of it. Pygmalion was particularly transfixed by a vision of Galatea, the female embodiment of all of his hopes and ideals. After carving the sculpture of Galatea, Pygmalion fell in love with the possibility that his vision of the ideal woman might someday become a reality. According to the myth, Pygmalion asked Venus, the goddess of love, to bring his statue to life. His wish was granted and the two were blessed with an exceptionally happy marriage.


You’re probably wondering what sort of relevance could this myth possibly have on your connected-home business? A lot, it turns out. In fact, the so-called Pygmalion Effect has fascinating implications for leaders and managers in every industry.


For proof, however, look first to the classroom. A famous study conducted in 1968, “Pygmalion in the Classroom,” was the work of Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. The results provide a fascinating glimpse at the powerful effect expectations have on performance. To begin the study, intelligence tests were administered to a group of elementary school students. The researchers then told the teachers which of their students had demonstrated the greatest academic potential. The catch? The students flagged by the researchers had been selected at random, not on any real indicators of intelligence. Lo and behold, by the end of the experiment, the randomly selected students had, in fact, turned into the academic leaders of their class.


What happened here? Even though the teachers had been instructed not to say anything directly to the students and not to spend any extra time with them, the students flagged as showing the most potential had still excelled to the top of their class. Why? Because, according to author Shawn Achor inThe Happiness Advantage,“The belief the teachers had in the students’ potential had been unwittingly and nonverbally communicated. More important, these nonverbal messages were then digested by the students and transformed into reality.”


So how does this phenomenon work? It’s simple:


  1. Our beliefs about others influence our actions toward them.

  2. These actions impact their beliefs about themselves.

  3. Their beliefs, in turn, influence their actions back toward us.

  4. These actions serve to reinforce our beliefs about them.


It’s easy to see how the Pygmalion Effect can create a virtuous — or vicious — cycle depending on where you begin. For example, imagine you’re implementing some changes to your service process. A key member of your service team, we’ll call him John, is struggling to adopt a critical new policy.


Your beliefs can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s say you don’t believe John can get better. In response to this belief you redesign the process to shift the accountability elsewhere or, worse, you simply ignore the problem. John, in turn, learns that it’s okay to disregard the new policy so he carries on executing under the old SOPs. His actions reinforce your beliefs, and the cycle continues.

Related: Confidence—The Most Important Ingredient for RMR Success

Conversely, let’s say you believe that John is capable of embracing the change. You begin to look for ways to help him build new habits and keep himself accountable. You work with John to identify specific parts of the new process that are unclear or unnecessarily burdensome. Your actions send an unmistakable signal to John — that you believe in him. Driven by an intrinsic desire to do a good job, John digs in and begins the hard work of changing his behaviors and habits. His actions reinforce your belief that he is capable of the change, and a virtuous cycle ensues.


Experiment with the Pygmalion Effect in your business. The results may surprise you. Whether you’re leading an internal team, interacting with superiors, or engaged with an outside party like a GC or architect, you can put this mental model to work right away. It costs nothing to do, requires no strategic planning sessions to implement, and can have a dramatic impact on the performance of those around you.


It turns out, all you have to do is believe.

This post originally appeared on Residential Systems

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