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Pygmalion, from Greek myth, was a Cypriot who found himself “not interested in women” after he saw the ladies in his home town prostituting themselves (it seems they irritated the goddess Aphrodite, and her idea for their punishment involved a loss of shame and whoring to exhaustion). Somehow, Pygmalion managed to overcome his puritanical disgust of the naked female form, and instead carved a (presumably nude) statue and called it Galatea. So overcome with his own artistry that he fell in love with it, he begged Aphrodite for a bride that would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl”. The capricious goddess brought the statue to life, and Pygmalion married her (it?).

Of course, you might think that this was a story that should have ended with Pygmalion being punished for his curious objectophila and rampant hypocrisy. Instead, the Pygmalion myth has become the parable for positive thinking.

The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect is “the effect whereby the greater the expectation placed on people, the better they perform”. The corresponding phenomenon of “the lower expectation, the worse they perform” is known as the Golem effect. And the study that is usually referenced was conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in 1968*.
*Yet another study that took place in that happy era when ethics were an added bonus but always optional.

The experiment:

  • All the students in a single elementary school in California were given an IQ test at the beginning of the study. The results were not disclosed to the teachers.
  • Instead, the teachers were told that about 20% of their students would be expected to be classified as “spurters”. That is: they would do significantly better than their classmates over the year.
  • Rosenthal and Jacobson then selected 20% of the students at random, and these names were then revealed to the teachers as supposed “spurters”.
  • A year later, the IQ tests were repeated.
  • After a year of school, everyone had improved.
  • However, in the young classes (Grades 1 and 2), the supposed spurters did significantly better than their peers.

The conclusion: when people expect you to do well, they subconsciously alter their own behaviour (and thereby, the reality) to allow you to do better. And it particularly impacts children in their formative phases. Perhaps the teachers spent a bit more time with the more promising students, or sent more questions in their direction, or something along those lines.

Pygmalion in the Workplace

In 1971, Albert King presented a paper called “Self-fulfilling prophecies in training the hard-core: supervisors’ expectations and the underprivileged workers’ performance“. In his framework, the supervisor played the effective role of Pygmalion, and a set of welder trainees were somewhat-burly Galateas. King told the supervisor about five trainees that showed particular aptitude for welding (in fact, they had been selected at random).

By the end of the training program, these five were the top-performers, were absent less often than the other trainees, and were voted by the other trainees as the people they would most want as co-workers.

The Life Lesson

There are numerous self-help websites that like to make conclusive statements about the responsibility of supervisors to expect good things. Frankly, that seems like the hallmark of a victimisation complex (everyone else must change to make my life as an employee better).

To me, it seems that expectations are a dynamic process. Most of the time, those expectations are framed by the first date, the first big submission, the first performance review… The framework then gets cemented with every subsequent encounter. And the employee is a willing participant in that process.

A Caveat

You might think this means that going all-out on your first job is a good thing, because it sets the bar high, and you’re more likely to achieve if your boss expects you to keep reaching it.

On the other hand, it can also be a terrible thing. In two ways:

  • if you do really well on a project that no one else wanted, then you might find yourself landed with all the unwanted projects (having demonstrated an aptitude for the menial and unexciting).
  • if you do exceptionally well because you worked through the night, then you’re going to be doing a lot of working through the night.

Unfortunately, working through the night can be equally seen as

  • Clearly, you’re committed. Nice; and
  • You’re so desperate for this job that you’re literally willing to give up your sleep, your health and your life for it – I can do with you as I will.

Expectations: they’re there to be managed.

You manage them because they have direct impact. And because sometimes, if you don’t, you end up as stone. Or worse, prostrate on the floor, shattered.