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Influential Leaders

How a manager's opinion of someone's potential impacts their success.

Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash
Source: Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

In 1965, two social scientists, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, walked into an elementary school in California. After administering psychometric tests, they informed the teachers that they had successfully identified the “growth spurters”—the students who were most likely to “bloom” academically. The test proved accurate when, a year later, these “growth spurters” indeed blossomed. The greatest change happened for the youngest students (first and second graders)—21 percent of these “spurters” showed a gain of at least 30 IQ points, and 79 percent showed a gain of at least 10 IQ points.

But here’s the catch. The test was fake. Unbeknownst to the teachers, the “growth spurters” were selected by the two researchers at random. So the only real difference between the “growth spurters” and the rest of the students was in the minds of the teachers.

This groundbreaking study offers clear evidence of the Pygmalion Effect—the phenomenon that expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It has since been demonstrated in sports, in the military, and in the workplace.

Put simply, what we expect from others influences what we get from others, for better or worse.

It’s time to expect more from leaders

Think about a time when someone’s belief in you made all the difference, even if you weren’t at your best.

I’m curious who this person was for you. When leading workshops or coaching individuals, I find most participants think of a teacher or a family member. Every so often, someone will describe a current or former work manager, sharing how their manager’s belief in them catapulted their success.

The notion of the bad boss who brings us down is ubiquitous, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Organizations must have higher expectations for managers and others in formal and informal leadership roles, as leaders who lift others up, unlock their potential, and believe in their team.

Expecting less may be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

How to make the mindset switch

Are you someone whom others look up to (or could look to for direction)? If so, this may be written with the workplace in mind, but this also applies to you. Whether you’re a manager, a parent, a therapist, or anyone in a position to teach or guide, choosing to recognize others' strengths and potential can make a huge positive impact.

We won’t like everyone we work with, and we don’t have to. But if we are in a position of formal (or informal) authority, and we can’t see a team member’s potential, they are at a disadvantage. Overlooking someone’s potential also puts us at a disadvantage, because it means we aren’t acting in a way that sets our team up for success.

Although this mindset represents one of the simplest ways to unlock others’ capacity, simple doesn’t mean easy. Most managers I’ve worked with report one or two people with whom it’s especially difficult to apply this mindset of belief. Here are three suggestions to deal with that:

1. Make it relevant. Most of us are too busy to put energy towards a difficult change if we don’t see that change as important. It’s helpful if we can make the shift personally relevant and meaningful.

One way to do this, as mentioned earlier, is to recall someone whose belief in you made all the difference, even when you weren’t at your best. Recalling this person may serve as motivation to pay it forward by choosing to believe in others.

2. Watch out for unconscious bias. Because of similarity bias—the tendency to favor those most similar to ourselves—we may be more likely to overlook the potential of those who are different than us. That said, it’s critical to double-check our assumptions about those with whom we work, and not confuse opinion with fact.

3. Act as if. The Pygmalion Effect doesn’t mean that a manager’s opinions on someone’s potential can magically rewrite their future. Rather, it can be explained by the way that the manager’s thinking influences their behavior. You can behave in a way that promotes opportunities to succeed by a) communicating high expectations; b) investing resources that promote success (e.g., training, coaching, adequate support to complete a project at a high level); and c) providing feedback in a helpful way.

Believing in someone’s capacity is easy—believing in everyone’s capacity is the work of sages. Working towards this is the type of internal work that makes leadership so personally transformative (and grueling in a good way)—when done right.

This doesn’t mean you're entirely responsible for your team’s performance, nor does it mean you have magical powers of influence, nor does it mean you can never let someone go for poor performance. What it does indicate is a subtle, simple, and important way you can stop holding others back, and start giving them a boost that enhances the chance they will blossom and bloom.


Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1992). Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils' intellectual development (expanded ed.). New York: Irvington.

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