18th December 2014

Pygmalion and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy


As the year draws to a close, it’s a great time to think about the year concluding, and the new one approaching. If you’ve read our blogs before, you’ll know we’re big fans of the ancient Romans and Greek philosophers as a way of developing greater insights into modern-day challenges. As well, there’s a lot of what we understand about both history and human behaviour that flows from great stories and myths. Once you’ve read Homer’s “Odyssey”, you’ll realise that Indiana Jones, the Hobbits and Luke Skywalker are just playing out adventures that have all gone before.

So we thought it was timely to talk about something you’ve probably heard before – the Self-Fulfilling Philosophy – and trace it back to its origin from a Greek myth.

There is a psychological experiment that has become famous through repeated trials that showcases the importance of support, motivation and underlying physiological factors in terms of performance and management within organisations. The experiment involves several public school teachers that were told specific students in their class are expected to do exceptionally well because of their intellect, but haven’t yet ‘bloomed’.

What the teachers didn’t know is these ‘special’ students were randomly selected and had no more potential than any other student. As you may have concluded, the students lived up to their teacher’s level of expectation. Although the teachers were told to give the same level of encouragement and attention to all students, the teachers had crafted their own expectation for these special students and thus delivered encouragement almost unconsciously through verbal and non-verbal communications.

The result, not surprisingly, was that the students who were no more gifted than their peers, substantially out-performed them and were more productive. This phenomenon came to be called the ‘Pygmalion effect’. The name comes from the Greek Mythological sculptor named Pygmalion, who carved a marble statue of a woman so life-like that he fell in love with her, and in response to his love, came to life to marry him essentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  What a  great story eh?

This psychological phenomenon also works on the contrary, with research observing the opposite result upon individuals labelled as lacking potential. These people under-performed and were less-productive than their peers. Since management is the organisation and coordination of people, within such a complex knowledge economy, productivity is the key factor to stay afloat and be ‘successful’ in ones work or career.

The outcome of the experiment shows that someone’s behaviour, not only in an academic context, comes to match and mirror’s others expectations. It is therefore crucial to overcome prejudices and preconceived notions of people in order for them to fulfil their potential and performance at work.  It is also important to understand that someone’s ‘potential’ is limited to someone else’s expectations and create strategies to overcome this or at least manage expectations across a peer group in a consistent manner. In understanding this, it becomes clear that within an organisation, it is the leaders who outline accepted standards and create a culture of high-performance (or not) in the workplace.

Knowing that how you feel towards someone has a larger impact than you may have thought, would you think differently of someone who you had previously put down as ‘not good enough’?  How would you change the culture of your workplace? Is financial incentive enough of a motivation to help change attitudes and adjust performance? What can you do to create your own self-fulfilling prophecy?

And as we’re about to enter the holiday season, think about your family, your friends and your kids.  There’s no better time to get closer to your own thinking about expectations, and make sure you’re giving everyone around you the opportunity to be the best they can be!

Taylor Petersen
Virgin Blogger (and Researcher)
Generator Talent Group

Categories: Uncategorised

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