The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion effect refers to situations where high expectations lead to improved performance and low expectations lead to worsened performance. 

The underlying idea is that when a leader, authority figure, or role model believes we can succeed in a certain area, we will work hard to meet their expectations. This also implies that we do better when more is expected of us. Moreover, it also says that the converse is true implying that when others have set limited expectations from us, it leads to a lower performance as compared to the other group. Livingston, in his study, found that his happens as people appear to do what they are expected to do. Interestingly, he also laid emphasis on communication of expectations, and found that managerial or leadership behaviours associated with low expectation play a more pivotal role than verbal communication. This was also displayed in an experiment that Oberlander conducted, in 1961, where he vehemently denied his low expectation from a low performing group, yet the group received a clear message that they had no chance of becoming high performers. This “as expected” led to a further decline in the low performing group.

Today, when managers/leaders nominate their subordinates for learning and development needs, the subordinates might misinterpret it as their incapability to perform well. Hence, it is of utmost importance for the managers and the L&D Teams, to communicate and set the expectation of the L&D interventions right.

When used intentionally, this phenomenon can help people introspect about how their attitudes and expectations contribute towards shaping the culture of an entire organisation. Some researchers believe that intentionality leads to manipulation and deception, which are considered unethical at workplaces. One of the approaches for overcoming this limitation is training the managers to develop high expectations for all their subordinates. And when focused on particular behaviours, brings the effect of expectation into conscious awareness (White, 2000).

For implementing the Pygmalion at the workplace appropriately, here are some research-based (Murphy, 1999) and practice-based guidelines:

  1. Recognise that that everyone is capable of improved performance and appreciate the efforts.
  2. Show your subordinates that you have confidence in them by involving them in setting performance objectives, assigning more realistically challenging tasks, including them in the planning and decision-making process.
  3. Coach your subordinates personally to genuinely show interest in their growth journeys.
  4. Pay conscious attention to your verbal and non-verbal communication. What appears to be critical in communicating expectations is not what the boss says, but the way they behave. Provide regular feedback. It is especially important as people need information on their progress in order to grow and develop.
  5. Create a warm and nurturing manager-subordinate relationship.
  6. Creating a culture of constant learning and growth by providing more opportunities. A survey conducted by Workable found that 62% people cited training and learning as one of the top motivators at work.
  7. With more millennials entering the workforce now, they seek to work in an environment where they’re expected to grow and succeed. Provide them (along with the others) with flexibility for their working style and working hours for showing trust and confidence.


Murphy, D., Campbell, C. and Garavan, T.N. (1999), “The Pygmalion effect reconsidered: its implications for education, training and workplace learning”, Journal of European Industrial Training, Vol. 23 No. 4/5, pp. 238-251.
White, S. S., & Locke, E. A. (2000). Problems with the Pygmalion effect and some proposed solutions. The Leadership Quarterly, 11(3), 389-415.,expectations%20lead%20to%20worsened%20performance.


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