Demonstrating belief in your team and in your employees is one of the most powerful tools available to a business leader. Setting a high bar prompts your people to dig deep and to reach new heights. Research shows that high expectations change the way you treat someone, which helps them unlock hidden potential. I have experienced the transformative power of belief personally—an effect that has been dubbed the Pygmalion Effect. As an executive wellness coach, I help leaders adopt this model to empower and motivate their teams.
The term derives from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, later adapted into the popular musical My Fair Lady. The story is about a working-class flower girl who is able to pass herself off as a member of the aristocracy with the tutoring of a professor. She sums up the effect in her own words: “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.” In other words, the Pygmalion Effect is a self-fulfilling prophecy about how other people’s (including your own) thoughts and actions toward us influence our performance and productivity.
My first boss and mentor
Steve Jobs hired me as his executive assistant shortly after I graduated college. Years later, the fact that he had seen something in me, and that I had successfully navigated working for such a demanding boss, gave me the courage to pursue my passion and purpose and start my own company. On the tenth anniversary of Steve’s death, I find myself thinking about his impact on my life. I would not be where I am without him.
Steve’s way of showing belief in you was to set the bar high, fully expecting you would hit that bar. He surrounded himself with people he thought were capable of the impossible and then routinely challenged them to do so.
Steve demanded excellence from me and everyone that worked with him. At times, his expectations initially seemed unrealistic. Eventually, I learned that a challenge that appears to be impossible is an opportunity to make the impossible possible—which was true in my case working for Steve and now as a CEO and executive coach. When our limits are pushed in a healthy, empowering way, it can help us fulfill our potential and provide us with the drive and motivation to excel.
The Pygmalion Effect in the workplace
Case studies have documented the effect of belief on performance and productivity as early as 1961. A breakthrough study in 1968 took place in the classroom setting. Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal and his partner told the teacher that a subgroup of their students had the potential to be exceptionally gifted. It turns out these students were no different from their peers, but the higher expectations changed the way the teacher taught them, and after a couple of months, these students outscored the rest of the class.
Rosenthal concluded that a “teacher’s expectation for a pupil’s intellectual competence can come to serve as an educational self-fulfilling prophecy.” This is more than just a matter of psychology. Higher expectations changed the nature and quality of the teacher’s feedback to the “gifted” students.
A comprehensive survey by the Harvard Business Review finds that business leaders and managers can translate this effect into the workplace—with impressive results. The author says one of the chief characteristics of the best managers is “the ability to create high-performance expectations that subordinates fulfill.” (Conversely, ineffective managers convey lower expectations and receive subpar results from their employees.)
There is also a critical disconnect: Managers are more effective in communicating low expectations than high expectations—even though they perceive themselves as conveying high expectations. One possible reason for this disconnect is that silence can communicate low or negative expectations even more strongly than criticism. Many managers are not good at consistently articulating positive feedback.
Empowering belief strategies for business leaders
Effective communication is the key to making the following strategies valuable and applicable for tapping into the power of belief:
- Focus on strengths. Instead of identifying weaknesses, identify positive qualities, skills, and opportunities for individuals to grow. Discuss your employees’ strengths with them and let them know what you believe they are capable of.
- Delegate. Tell your employees you trust them and empower them to step up. When you delegate a task or project, let them know it is an opportunity to shine and grow.
- Provide constructive feedback. Use the feedback sandwich model by providing specific and constructive feedback sandwiched between praise so that the positive outweighs the negative feedback. The objective is to reinforce strengths while identifying areas for improvement. Using specific examples is helpful in validating your feedback.
- Challenge employees. Stretch employees by having higher expectations of them than they might have for themselves. For this challenge to generate growth rather than stress, convey confidence that they are up to the task, and compliment and encourage them for incremental progress they make along the way.
- Give employees room to make mistakes. With being stretched comes the risk of making mistakes and stumbling. Employees should not feel they have no margin for error. A fear of failure inhibits growth and prevents employees from taking chances and being their best.
The Pygmalion Effect cuts both ways
As the Harvard Business Review notes, the power of expectations cuts both ways. Low expectations, whether stated explicitly or implied, can have a devastating effect on employee confidence and performance. (Researchers call this negative flipside to the Pygmalion Effect “the Golem effect.”)
High expectations can also set in motion a cycle of unrealistic expectations that can lead to burnout. As I wrote about recently, the pandemic has resulted in longer work hours and many people (especially women) burning the candle at both ends. It is possible to set high expectations while at the same time learning to work smarter and to maintain manageable workloads
The balance between pushing your employees to stretch them and pushing them into burnout is a delicate one. I experienced that dynamic while working for Steve Jobs. It was understood that if you did not meet his high expectations, your job could be on the line. It is also true that, for those who proactively manage their stress and are passionate about what they do, pressure is experienced as eustress (good stress that fuels you to perform) rather than chronic stress.
Researchers find that a person’s first boss is likely to be their most influential one, and that was certainly the case for me. Steve remains my most important mentor and inspiration. Keep that in mind as you interact with some of your new hires and youngest employees. Choosing to believe in them can change a life.