You’ve probably heard of the Pygmalion effect. It’s when people start to escalate their performance because of the expectations others have of them. It’s named after the Greek myth of Pygmalion who fell in love with an ivory sculpture he created. He loved his sculpture so much that he wished her alive as his wife, and so it happened.
That, of course, is a myth. But the phenomenon of willing high performance in others is real. In classic experiments over forty years ago, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson demonstrated that teachers in classrooms can elevate the performance of their students simply by believing that the kids are destined to be high performers. In the study, researchers gave fake IQ tests to elementary students, and then lied to the teachers that 20% of their students were identified as “intellectual bloomers”.
It worked. The teachers began to hold a false belief that specific students in their classroom were intellectually gifted, and destined for high performance. As a result, the teachers started to create a more nurturing environment to help those “intellectual bloomers” excel. The lie created a false belief that 20% of their students had elevated IQs and were poised for intellectual greatness.
The teachers believed in the potential of their students and intentionally created circumstances to enhance their success.
The teachers did this by deliberately “creating a warm and friendly environment for students, providing students with opportunities to practice their skills, and providing students with performance-based feedback.”
More recent studies find the same is true when it comes to building high-performance cultures in the workplace. When leaders hold high expectations of those around them, they tend to offer more learning opportunities, provide more consistent feedback, and hold people to a high level of accountability.
There’s one critical factor in all of this high-expectations business: Never tell them they are great. Don’t tell the kids they are brilliant, and don’t tell your colleagues they are inherently gifted and destined to thrive.
When we tell someone they are brilliant, gifted, and remarkable, we create an illusion that they have some inherent, hard-wired advantage over others. So they start to self-evaluate and compare themselves to others and try to identify their edge. That comparison and self-scrutiny can be crippling.
The world is littered with stories of those who choke in the face of high expectations. Remember Michelle Kwan, the American skating prodigy? Having won four world titles heading into the 2002 Winter Olympics, critics universally picked Kwan to wear the gold medal before the competition even began. Any threat would certainly only come from rival talents Irina Slutskaya and Kwan’s own teammate Sasha Cohen.
But they all skated tight, self-consciously. They skated as if they were obligated to win. Instead it was no-name Sarah Hughes, who barreled on to the ice and delivered a vibrant, unrestrained, and confident four minutes of joyous choreography to the deafening roar of approval in the stadium. Sarah never believed that she deserved to win, or was expected to win – only that with pluck, dedication and work, a win was an achievable goal. Her coach, Robin Wagner said in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, “Our feeling is, you go for the gold,” Wagner said. “It’s a feasible expectation.”
It turned out to be Hughes’ one, and only, big time win. Only a year later Hughes retired from skating on her own terms, satisfied and elated with her short career.
Believe in your goals, earn your gifts.
Shawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, a company building beautiful elearning courses based on the work of best-selling authors. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, (Bibliomotion) will be out in October but you can pre-order a copy now.