At a recent coaching session for senior managers, I was asked whether I heard of the Pygmalion effect and how it can be used to improve team performance.

I have no idea what the Pygmalion effect is except that I remember watching My Fair Lady, a musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, many years ago.

The Pygmalion effect, also known as the Rosenthal effect, is a psychological phenomenon wherein high expectations lead to improved performance in a given area (Wikipedia).

This phenomenon was discovered by psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson when they did experiments in an elementary school and found that changes in teacher expectations produced changes in student achievement.

Read on and find out how you can use the Pygmalion effect to improve work performance.

What is the Pygmalion effect?

In 1912, playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote a play, entitled Pygmalion. The play shows how a professor, Henry Higgins, changes a flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a lady.

Shaw’s play is about expectancy. If you expect success, you will very likely get success. The reverse works also: if you expect failure, you will get that too.

Here’s a video on the Pygmalion effect:

Psych2Know: “The Pygmalion Effect” (YouTube Creative Commons License)

In the classroom, there are two sets of expectancies working simultaneously. One set of expectancy is what the student expects; the other set is what the teacher expects.

Likewise in the office or a team, there are two sets of expectancies: one set is what the team members expect; the other set is what the team leader expects.

The Pygmalion effect in education

Rosenthal’s study showed that teachers’ expectations can affect their students’ IQ and achievement. When teachers were told that certain kids in their classes showed “high promise” to achieve, those students did much better than students who were not told. In other words, when teachers expect more, they often get more. Likewise, when students expect to do well, they will do well.

The Pygmalion effect in business

The Pygmalion effect also applies in business. A team leader’s expectations of the team affect the team member’s behavior.

For example, a team leader usually has higher expectations from a team member who is more engaged in learning activities. In turn, the team member participates in more learning activities, meeting the team leader’s expectations (Bezuijen, et al.).

How to use the Pygmalion effect to get more success

Many of us have been told to “have high expectations.” However, this mantra is rather weak and it fails to challenge us. Why? Because nowadays in schools, even when a team got the last place, the team members got trophies!

Every student is now told to have high expectations. And if you asked students who failed previously, their high expectation is just to pass the exams, not to get top grades.

The same happens in the workplace. If a team is not expected to excel by the team leader, the team members will perform just enough to get through. On the other hand, if a team leader sets targets for the team, most likely the team will meet those targets.

When you start using the Pygmalion effect on your team, your team members will respond with better performance.

Setting goals and expectations

When setting goals for your team members, how high should you set the goals and expectations?

Research has shown that teachers that set high or lofty goals were the most successful in getting their students to reach those goals. Likewise, in the business world, CEOs and senior managers that set high goals for their organizations were most successful in getting their staff to reach those goals.

Unfortunately, many company managers do not set lofty goals. The reasons are:
(1) they are afraid their team members cannot reach the expectations and as a result, they have failed as leaders, and
(2) they lack the skills and confidence to pull off these lofty goals.

What you should do

Stop worrying about failing. As a manager, if you are not failing, then you are setting your goals too low. Great leaders fail all the time and they fail because they set high goals.

Give your team a vision. Good managers who understand the Pygmalion effect focus on altering their team members’ vision of their work and career. If the vision is a great future, your team members will get motivated and move forward. If not, your team members become demotivated and quit.

Use positive statements. Teach your team members how to use positive statements (affirmations) and to repeat these statements frequently. Apply positive brainwashing to your team members to help them improve their performance.

Set higher goals. Make sure you set higher goals because higher goals inspire. Always set goals high enough so that when your team members fail, they will still succeed higher than those who don’t set high goals.

Upgrade your skills. If you are afraid of setting higher goals, then, you may have to upgrade your skills to be able to do that. This is critical because if you do not have high expectations of your team members, they are unlikely to become top performers.

Sell them the idea is achievable. Besides having high expectations of your team members, you need to sell them the idea that the goals can be achieved. Tell them: “Last year was difficult but we succeeded. This year is going to be even more challenging. I am going to do everything to make sure you succeed and make this year even better than the last.”


  • Bezuijen, X. M., Van Den Berg, P. T., Van Dam, K., Thierry, H. “Pygmalion and Employee Learning: The Role of Leader Behaviors”. Journal of Management, vol. 35, no. 5, 2009, pp. 1248–1267.
  • Jensen, E. “The Importance of the Impossible.” Adapted with permission.
  • Mangels, J. A., Butterfield, B., Lamb, J., Good, C., Dweck, C. S. “Why do Beliefs about Intelligence Influence Learning Success? A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Model.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, vol. 1, no. 2, 2006, pp. 75-86.
  • Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. “Pygmalion in the Classroom.” The Urban Review, vol. 3, 1968, pp. 16-20.
  • Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. “Teachers’ Expectancies: Determinants of Pupils’ IQ Gains.” Psychological Reports, vol. 19, 1996, pp/ 115-118.
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