Pygmalion Motivation

Motivating High Performance With High Expectations

Aim high.

© iStockphoto/hoodesigns

The Pygmalion Effect helps you think about how your expectations of other people can influence or motivate their performance.

It argues that by setting and communicating high performance expectations, you can motivate better performance from the people you lead and manage.

The effect was originally studied in context of teachers' expectations of their students: Students who are expected to perform well usually do so. Those students of whom teachers have lower expectations will generally perform less well. However, this approach has clear application in the corporate world.

This effect is named after George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion", which is the basis of the film and stage musical "My Fair Lady". Shaw summarizes the effect by character Professor Higgins' observation that:

...the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated.

Understanding the Theory

As a manager or supervisor, your aim is to get the best performance from the people who work from you. If you have high expectations of a member of your team, this can reinforce your efforts. On the other hand, if you convey lower expectations of an individual, this can undermine your efforts to improve his or her performance.

Without knowing it, you may show low expectations by delegating less challenging and interesting work. You may pay less attention to team members' performance and give them less support and praise. In return, the team member may feel undervalued and untrusted, and his or her confidence may be undermined. And so your lower expectations, albeit unconsciously communicated, can demotivate the team member, creating the exact opposite effect of the performance improvement that you want.

More than this, the effect of low expectations can create a vicious circle – you expect less, you get less, you lower your expectations and further demotivate, and so on.

The good news is that the opposite is also true. By setting and communicating higher expectations, you can motivate team members and create a virtuous circle leading to continuously improving performance.

Using the Theory

To use this new technique to shape the way you express your expectations, follow the steps below:

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