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Pygmalion Leadership: The Power of Positive Expectations

The Pygmalion effect has been documented to improve employee performance.

As a leader, simply holding positive expectations about team members' performance can actually lead to better team performance. Research has clearly shown the power of holding positive expectations of others. We get the outcomes that we expect. This is what is known as the "self-fulfilling prophecy," or the "Pygmalion effect" - named after George Bernard Shaw's play in which Professor Henry Higgins transforms a common flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, into a lady because he believed that it would happen (you likely are more familiar with the musical version, "My Fair Lady").

The power of the Pygmalion effect, first captured by psychologist Robert Rosenthal in his study of elementary school children, has been well documented as a simple and effective way to boost performance - in the classroom, in the workplace, in the military, and elsewhere.

In his famous study of elementary school students, Rosenthal led teachers to believe that certain pupils in their classrooms had been identified as "intellectual bloomers" - children who would show an intellectual growth spurt during the school year. In actuality, the students were randomly given the designation of intellectual bloomers, but at the end of the term, these students did indeed show higher academic achievement. Why? Because the teachers believed in them. How? Later studies showed that teachers unconsciously gave more positive attention, feedback, and learning opportunities to these students. In short, teachers were able to "nonverbally" communicate their positive expectations for academic success to these students.

What are the implications for leading work groups? Tel Aviv University professor, Dov Eden, has demonstrated the Pygmalion effect in all sorts of work groups, across all sectors and industries. If supervisors or managers hold positive expectations about the performance of those they lead, for instance believing that they can solve a challenging problem, performance improves. On the other hand, if the leader holds negative expectations - expectations that the group will fail - it leads to performance declines (the dreaded Golem effect).

As Dov Eden says, "it sounds so simple; it seems too good to be true." A recent meta-analysis (a statistical analysis that combines the results of studies) found that Pygmalion leadership training was the most effective leadership development intervention.

The bottom line is this: Leaders, believe in your team. Hold positive and high expectations that they will solve that difficult problem, meet the seemingly insurmountable challenge, and more often than not, they will meet or exceed your expectations.

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