The Pygmalion Effect: You Control Your Employees’ Potential 

September 2, 2014

1:30 pm

In an (in)famous study of elementary school students, researchers tested their intelligence and reported to teachers which ones had performed exceptionally well. But their findings came with a warning: don’t treat these students differently, and don’t tell anyone about the results. The teachers were even observed to make sure they didn’t spend extra time with the superstars.

By the end of the year, the students were still performing exceptionally well – but there was a catch. Their test scores from before had been merely average. The experimenters had lied to the teachers, but their lies came true. 

“The belief the teachers had in the students’ potential had been unwittingly and nonverbally communicated. More important, these nonverbal messages were then digested by the students and transformed into reality,” writes Shawn Achor in The Happiness Advantage.

The idea that people fulfill the expectations we have of them is called the Pygmalion effect, and it’s not restricted to the classroom. The same thing can happen at work. But the reason it’s so insidious is that the teachers would probably have said that they weren’t treating the special students any differently. That means that, as a manager or CEO, you may be shaping your employees’ potential without knowing it. 

Achor urges managers to think about three questions: 

  • Do you believe your employees have fixed or malleable skills and intelligence? Believing they can improve will help them do so. 
  • Do you believe they want to improve and find meaning and fulfillment in their jobs? 
  • How are you conveying these beliefs in words and actions? 

It may be hard to admit that you have low expectations for some team members, and even harder to admit that those expectations might be self-fulfilling. The good news is that the Pygmalion effect works both ways. As cliche as it sounds, when you believe in people, they’re more likely to succeed. 

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact