The expectations we put on people can have a direct impact on their performance.
Often, and authority figure placing higher expectations on someone, like a teacher having high expectations for a student, or a manager having high expectations for an employee, can result in both the authority figure and the person in question changing their behaviour, perception of challenge and ultimately the success of their efforts.
This cognitive bias is known as the Pygmalion effect, a psychological phenomenon in which high expectations lead to improved performance in a given area and low expectations lead to worse.
It is named after the Greek myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell so much in love with the perfectly beautiful statue he created that the statue came to life.
The Pygmalion effect was discovered by researcher Robert Rosenthal in his 1965 research on teachers and students. In this experiment, he told teachers that certain students had higher potential than others. In reality, these students were chosen at random.
The experiments showed that once the teachers were told that a student had more potential, they had higher expectations of them and may have changed their behaviour to push the student to meet their potential.
A teacher might pay particular attention to specific students, or they might suggest more challenging activities to get them to push themselves further and faster than other students of their age.
Similarly, with the encouragement of the teacher, the student may have changed their belief of what they were capable of, pushing themselves further too. It may even help build a growth mindset in the student, helping them to push through challenges and enjoy the process more.
Other research has shown that the Pygmalion effect may help explain the link between teacher expectations and college completion rates.
And there are many examples of students who have a “gift” identified by a teacher, whether it be for creative pursuits like art, music, dance or other areas such as sports, debate or science. These students are then given access to additional learning and practice opportunities which other students just do not have, helping to nurture their potential skills and talent.
This can create a positive feedback loop, where time and resources to develop skills will make that person to develop faster than other peers, making them look better by comparison, resulting in even higher expectations and more opportunities to improve further.
Unfortunately, the Pygmalion effect is not only positive. Lower expectations for a particular student, or a type of behaviour, can result in lower performance. For example, we have seen that even though most teachers say they encourage creativity and creative behaviours in their students, multiple research studies have shown that teachers actually dislike creativity.
As a result, many children end up believing they cannot or should not be creative, leading them to a life as adults where they are frustrated by their creative potential being unfulfilled.
Using the Pygmalion effect to improve performance
Now, this does not mean that just by setting higher expectations on someone, it will improve their performance. Other studies have shown that student motivation, enthusiasm and achievement are influenced by multiple factors beyond just teacher expectations.
Additionally, it has been shown to be challenging to try and improve workplace performance using the Pygamlion effect.
One research study of 140 R&D employees did show that employee creativity was related to the expectation of creative behaviour, such as supervisor expectations. So there is the scope to improve creativity in the workplace to a degree.
However, other research studies have found that trying to force higher performance in the workplace through higher expectations is not guaranteed to work.
So in order to use the Pygmalion effect to enhance their innovation success rate or creativity, a team, organisation or company needs to truly have a culture of innovation, where people see that creativity is the expectation.
Importantly, this must be a true culture which members believe and live for themselves.
If it is just a statement which people should believe in, but they see that the actual behaviour is more risk-averse, where new ideas and bad news are punished, then the expectation will actually harm innovation and creativity.
Group leaders need to display and publicly live these values they want to encourage in others, and this will set the tone for what is expected of others.
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