Pygmalion Motivation

Motivating High Performance With High Expectations

Pygmalion Motivation - Motivating Improved Performance by Setting High Expectations

© iStockphoto

Set high expectations, and team members will soar.

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:

  1. Make a list of all of the members of your team, and then write down your expectations of the job-related performance of each team member on the next task you allocate to him or her.
  2. Next, take an objective look at the outcomes of the last three tasks you delegated to each team member. Were these outcomes positive or negative? Again, write down this objective measure of outcomes against each performer.
Pygmalion Motivation Grid Diagram

From "Pygmalion in the Classroom," by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jackson. Reproduced with permission from Ardent Media, Inc.

  1. Plot each team member on the grid in figure 1 (above). Don't worry too much about scale: Just ask yourself which of the four quadrants (boxes) reflects your expectation of the team member and his or her objective performance. The quadrants are:

    "High Performers, as Expected"
    These people meet your expectations and continuously improve their performance. This can be a "virtuous circle", where high performance is subtly motivated by your high expectations.

    "Low Performers, as Expected"
    Here, you have lower expectations of people, and they tend to perform and improve less well than others. This can be a "vicious circle", and there's a risk that these people are subtly demotivated by your lower expectations of them.

    "Self-Motivated Performers"
    Despite your lower expectations of this group, these team members perform well. Perhaps their last three tasks were unusually successful, or perhaps you need to adjust your expectations.

    Despite your higher expectations, this group are failing to improve their perform.

  2. Now consider and write down all the ways in which you may be consciously and unconsciously motivating or demotivating the members of your team. This will include factors such as:
    • The work you delegate.
    • The responsibility and trust you give.
    • Praise and recognition.
    • Support and guidance given.
    • Opportunities for development given.
    • Fair treatment in relation to other team members.

    Tip 1:

    A useful starting point for thinking about what motivate and demotivates others is to think about what motivates you. But people differ in their needs – if possible, check with team members themselves.

  3. For the factors you identify, what are the (obvious or subtle) differences in the way you treat people in your "High Performers, As Expected" category compared to your "Low Performers, As Expected" category? What can you learn from how you treat your "High Performers, As Expected" that could help you better motivate others?

    Tip 2:

    However "fair" we try to be in treating our team members, differences evolve for all manner of reason. Be honest with yourself about these, and it will help you identify and avoid some unintentional signals that can demotivate.

  4. Now you have analyzed the impact of your expectations, you can use what you have learned to make subtle changes to how you treat and motivate people and so improve performance. Here's how to consider each category:

    "Low Performer as Expected"
    By expecting more of this group, you can help motivate better performance in many areas. Using the information from steps 4 and 5, write down how you can signal and express higher expectations.

    "Self-Motivated Performers"
    These people are potentially some of your biggest stars. Write down how you can more clearly signal positive expectations and recognize their achievements, and so motivate even better performance.

    Why do these people underperform? Are you expecting too much from them, or is something stopping them perform to their potential? Talk to these people and be prepared to expect less or provide more support and guidance.

    "High Performance as Expected"
    Don't forget the people in this category! Keep up your "virtuous circle" expectations and motivation to help this group keep on performing.

Finding This Article Useful?

You can learn another 301 team management skills, like this, by joining the Mind Tools Club.

Join the Mind Tools Club Today!

Key Points

"Pygmalion Motivation" helps you apply the principles of the Pygmalion Effect to alter the way you express your expectations of team members, thereby motivating them to improve their performance.