Want More from Your Employees? Raise Your Expectations

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

Recently I was in line at a local grocery store when the supervisor came over and started berating the cashier: “Could you move any slower?” she asked sarcastically. The employee said nothing, but by the time it was my turn she was in fact checking my groceries more slowly. Apparently, the answer was “yes,” she could move more slowly. Clearly, the supervisor lacked leadership skills, but there is more to it. The manager was experiencing the “Pygmalion Effect.”

In a Gallup Leadership Institute meta study the Pygmalion Effect—or Self-fulfilling Prophecy Effect—is stronger than most leaders would suspect. In fact, this effect is the greatest of any of the leadership development tools.

Here’s how it works. In the study half of the leaders were told they would be working with exceptional groups of people—better, smarter, more motivated than the rest. The other leaders were told nothing at all about their teams. In reality, the teams were randomly selected and neither was better or worse in its makeup than the other. But the leaders approached their groups with the preconceived notions they were given by the study team. And in the end, the teams’ actual performances were substantially different—they were consistent with what the leaders were initially told. The “superstars” performed like superstars. The other group performed like an average group.

According to Bruce Avolio in High Impact Leader (2006), “The so-called smarter or more motivated groups do better if the leader believes they are smarter or more motivated. Ironically, by creating the ruse, the largest intervention effects were obtained, compared to all other methods.” Not only did the “better team” perform at a higher level but the participants on that team came to believe that their own skills were raised to a higher level.

In another analysis, self-efficacy—what employees thought of their own skills—improved work-related performance by an impressive 28%.

For leaders the message is clear. The way managers treat their employees really does make a difference and will have a direct impact on business results. What leaders think consciously or unconsciously about their teams will be communicated and the employees will raise or lower their performance to meet those expectations.

Eight Ways to Put the Pygmalion Effect to Work for You:

1. Communicate expectations to the staff in a positive way. Pay attention to how you sound, your body language, the total message you are projecting. Does it convey belief in the team or the individual?

2. Keep the visions of the staff as positive as possible; try to visualize your team as superstars.

3.  The higher the level of expectation, the better the team will perform—as long as it is given the proper support and encouragement.

4.  Start a recognition process in which supervisors recognize employees with personally written thank-you cards. If you think you are too busy, consider this: Jack Welch was known for this practice and he was the CEO of GE, an organization of 300,000 employees. Yet he found time to write a note of thanks whenever he saw something he wanted to recognize.

5.  Catch people doing something right and commend them for it.

6.  Make a list of all of the members of your team and then write down your expectations of them. Next, take an objective look at their performance. What can you do to continue to support those you have high expectations of and who perform well? What can you do about the people you have low expectations of and who are not performing as well as they might?

7.  Make a list of the underperformers' strengths and make a concerted effort to give them positive feedback for what they do well.

8.  Follow the practice of providing feedback in balance: three positives for every one criticism or negative feedback.

So just like Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, managers can take average employees and turn them into superstars with a simple attitude adjustment.