The Pygmalion-Galatea Tango: Driving Performance from Employee and Supervisor Expectations

One of the most famous people in business history, Henry Ford, once said about High expectations and positive reinforcement can engender a virtuous circle and elevate performance for employees and teams.expectations:

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

Over the last century or so since Ford was quoted, much research has been done in the field of positive thinking and its effect on a person’s outcomes, both personal and professional.

Perhaps the most famous work in the study of optimism was a 1985 study by Michael F. Scheier and Charles S. Carver that focused on positive thinking and health outcomes. More recently, Barbara L. Fredrickson put forward her “broaden-and-build” theory, that positivity builds over time and has wide-ranging effects in the practitioner’s life.

Pygmalion and Galatea at work

Considering people tend to spend a significant amount of time at work, these insights have the opportunity to profoundly influence a person’s professional life. Those ideas have been popularized within business circles as the Pygmalion (a supervisor’s expectations) and Galatea (a person’s own professional expectations) effects.

The best part about both of these conclusions is that they have the possibility of profound impact in the workplace and are completely free. Of course, you could invest in some sort of professional development designed around Pygmalion and Galatea, but why? One can give rise to the other.

The effects in action

Think of it this way: a supervisor or manager has high expectations for each of his or her subordinates, even the one who always come into work grumpy and disinterested. That supervisor never misses an opportunity to communicate in a positive manner to employees. Their most commonly used phrase is “You can do it!”

Eventually, the grumpy employee starts trying to fulfill the supervisor’s prophecy. “He thinks I can do this, so I probably can. After all, he’s the boss.” As the supervisor expects more, the employee grows along with the expectations.

The same works in reverse. A manager believes they are surrounded by incompetence, even in the form of the bouncy, positive employee who never turns down a challenge and quickly forgets about failures. It’s hard to stay negative about an employee like that, especially if they are succeeding where others aren’t.

It can start with you

How can we make these effects a reality? We can always exclusively hire only positive people, but sometimes that’s not realistic (or prospects are just putting on a show during the interview process). The beauty of the Pygmalion/Galatea tango is, because they have the power to have effects from the top-down and bottom-up, it only takes one person’s mindset to change a culture. Chances are, if you’re reading this, that you’re already interested in the concept. In that case, that one person in your organization can be you.

Further reading: To learn more about engaging your workforce, you may want to check out this white paper: The Language of Employee Engagement.

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