Curious Insight into Employee Motivation and the Pygmalion Effect
Great Performance Starts with Great Expectations
No, by “great expectations,” I’m not referring to the Dickens book. Presumably when you hire or promote someone, you expect great things from them. You don’t think, “Yes, this warm body will be adequate enough, I suppose.” If so, then you’re probably not reading this article. Studies based on the Pygmalion Effect have shown that people will perform up – or down – to the level of expectations you set for them.
Much has been written about the Pygmalion Effect (most notably a study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson), the notion of self-fulfilling prophecy, from the viewpoint of parenting and teaching, but the same can be said for businesses. Do you scold, criticize, and demean your employees, or do you positively encourage them constructively?
The famous George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion (remade as the musical My Fair Lady) is one of many works of literature based on the Pygmalion Effect. In this famous tale, Professor Henry Higgins sets out to transform Eliza Doolittle from Cockney flower girl to a respectable socialite. The process worked but only to an extent, due in part to bad intentions.
Perhaps the most formalized adaptation of the Pygmalion Effect can be found in the military, especially boot camp training for recruits. The Marines are known for taking young potential soldiers with various backgrounds and abilities and tearing them down only to build them back up as Marines. Some wash out along the way while others are transformed from the person they were into the strapping young leaders of tomorrow.
An example of the Pygmalion Effect in the workplace.
Some would argue that the tearing down part is psychologically harsh and potentially harmful. But it provides a clear example of the effects of both negative and positive reinforcement. People with strong wills and determination will strive to overcome criticism, but many will accept the badgering and succumb to what they assume to be their fate.
Conversely, praise and compliments delivered constructively towards a positive goal will often yield the intended results. The person feels supported and inspired while also not wanting to disappoint the person giving the encouragement.
4 Steps to Manage the Pygmalion Effect Among Your Employees
Consider the culture of your organization and whether your managers are more likely to give positive encouragement or negative feedback. Here are 4 ways to manage the Pygmalion Effect throughout your workforce:
1. Job fit with an eye to the future. Hiring someone into a job that is below their ability will frustrate them while limiting their ability to perform to their potential. Likewise, placing someone into a job for which they’re not yet suited will also frustrate them and cause them to fail (and risk your productivity). But placing a person into the right role for them now or that they can reasonably work up to in the near future will give them something to progress towards.
Assessments for job fit can be crucial in this process. They essentially perform the function of the Marines’ “tearing down” process to assess whether or not the recruits have the potential to become Marines.
2. Set stretch goals. In a natural progression, it is important to set stretch goals for individuals that are beyond their current achievements but that are reasonable to attain. If expectations are too high to be achievable and realistic, then you’re setting the employee up to fail. If set too low, then you’re allowing them to perform below their ability.
3. “Inspect what you expect.” This mantra is often used on this blog and serves as an important reminder to managers and business leaders to measure that which is important to achieving their goals. Establishing clear expectations is a critical component of this equation. You don’t want to measure things that don’t contribute to the goals, and you don’t want to set the bar too high or low.
4. Make sure feedback is constructive. One of the points we stress often is the importance of a coaching culture. Talk to your employees often about their performance, giving both praise and constructive feedback. If someone is struggling, help them to overcome the problem with additional guidance, mentoring, or training. But if all you do is berate them, then they’ll have little incentive to try harder. However, with constructive comments and helpful words of encouragement, they have a better chance of improving their performance and moving beyond their current level.
Image credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Drill_instructor_at_the_Officer_Candidate_School.jpg
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