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The Pygmalion Effect

“You get what you expect” When the person in authority creates a positive climate by his inquisitive questioning,

“You get what you expect”

When the person in authority creates a positive climate by his inquisitive questioning, interested listening, responsive body language, open gestures etc., the receiving person responds to the expectations.

I hastened Rakesh to fill in the JAF quickly. Rakesh had walked in to our office twice before for the earlier rounds of interview for a team-lead position in marketing. He had to be put before our president Keshab Nand (KN or prez, hereinafter) today for the final discussion. The JAFs are supposed to be filled in by the candidates in their own handwriting before they are taken for final interview. If you are wondering what this JAF is, then my pur­pose is served. Acronymising and jargonising the common terms are among the clever devises, we HR pros, tend to come up with every now and then so as to give a pretense of domain spe­cialism, lest HR becomes an easy prey for encroachment from non-professionals. Whenever the topic turns to HR, everyone turns out to be an instant expert and starts offering comments and advice, unasked.

Prez’s nod is a crucial step before the can­didate is offered fitment. Though this final in­terview is more of a formality, KN’s uncanny knack of spotting the unspotted could, at times, bring up some surprises and would put us back to ground zero of starting the whole process all over again. KN had told me the previous day that the first thing he would do today was to meet the candidate. I know if I do not put Rakesh to him right in the morning, he would get into the thick of day’s business and it would not be easy to get him out from that later. That was why I was rushing Rakesh to complete the JAF, which, if you have not guessed by now, stands for job application form.

As Rakesh was scribbling his signature on the fourth page of the form, I discourteously pulled it out from below his pen like an exam invigilator, since KN had already walked in to his office. When I entered KN’s office, he was pouring his black coffee from the flask and noticing me at the door, he asked, ‘has Rakesh arrived?’ Had he not, that would be enough to write him off. Not keeping time is not to be brooked at the entry stage. ‘Yes Sir’ I said. I could see my overstressed ‘sir’ sounding pungent to my ears. Though KN is liberal about being on first-name terms even with his junior col­leagues, we have been hanging on to sir-culture so that the other old-timers did not get of­fended. As he settled down in his chair, I placed the filled-in JAF on his table along with the ief that has already been signed off by the previous panelists with their ratings.

Giving a cursory glance at the JAF, he said,‘what Bharath, don’t you know that marketing people need to be outgoing? Rakesh doesn’t seem to fit the bill. He seems to be a hardcore introvert. Didn’t you get it on seeing his form?’ I was trying to guess whether he was referring to his lack of social and networking activities. But when he continued, ‘look at his handwrit­ing, tiny letters slanting to the left’, I realised that he was just reading the hand-writing rather than what it contained. ‘Probably, he has not let his handwriting get the better of him,’ I blurted out in a lighter vain, with the usual anxiety of an HR man, not wanting to let go of the efforts put in to take the candidate to this stage. ‘Why do you say that?’ KN asked, as though to ask me what evidence I have got to challenge his assumptions.


The least I wanted at that moment was to say something that could help wipe off any bias about the candidate. Something clicked in my mind and I continued, ‘maybe you are right sir, but can we postpone our conclusions till we get enough data and probably start with a null hypothesis — by which we make a conscious as­sumption that actual is different from what is observed, which might have just been a chance occurrence. What I am trying to say, sir…’

KN cut me short, ‘don’t start your training class now, Bharath, you want me to start with a prem­ise that Rakesh fits right for our marketing slot, right? Ok, call him’. Something made me feel that the graphology thing was not about the candidate but was more about me. I felt good about myself that I have not become another ‘yes sir’ guy.

What went on during the next half an hour between prez and Rakesh was something exem­plary of an interview. Opening with a casual inquiry about Rakesh’s travel from Mumbai set a cordial note and from there, the way the dis­cussions took on to his career-related stuff got Rakesh into a free flow. As he went on, KN’s questions seemed as though he wanted to get the best out of Rakesh and Rakesh’s responses seemed to be fully in tune with that expecta­tion. During the course of discussions, Rakesh was seen stumbling, for a moment, when he was asked whether he had experience handling large-scale payment defaults and if so, what the les­sons learnt were. But KN’s cue to his stint in a small business town that faced the brunt during the recession times blew the bulb in Rakesh’s head and he was again seen in full form. To­wards the close, when Rakesh was asked if he had any questions to ask, he was very candid in saying that it was one of the best interviews he had had and then asked the prez, ‘but may I know what is the impression I am leaving behind?’ KN glanced at me and then he said, ‘Rakesh, you can take on the baton’. As we wound up, KN endorsed the ief with his com­ment ‘fit’. (You guessed it right; ief is just the good old interview evaluation form)

This interview had something that blos­somed out the candidate. The earlier rounds of the interview seemed more like a fact-finding mission compared to this round. I could sense one thing: when the person-in-authority creates a positive climate by his inquisitive questioning, interested listening, responsive body language, open gestures etc, the receiving person responds to the expectations. Thus the positive expecta­tions set out positive performance. It can be true the other way round also. If we start with negative expectations, we unconsciously express them through various verbal and non-verbal means and we most often find the candidate coming out poorly conforming to our negative expectations.

We have all heard of the self-fulfilling proph­ecy, which means “we get what we expect”. If we expect something to happen, our expecta­tion will tend to make it so. It is just that people tend to live up to what’s expected of them and they tend to do better when treated as if they are capable of success. “The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them,” said Sterling Livingston in his article, Pygmalion in Management, pub­lished in the Harvard Business Review (Sept/Oct ’88).

A leading researcher on this issue, Robert Rosenthal, labelled this expectancy effect the “Pygmalion effect”. To give some background, the term Pygmalion is drawn from Greek my­thology. Pygmalion, the sculptor, fell in love with the statue of a woman he created and through his sheer power of love, his statue Galatea was aroused to life. Much later, George Barnard Shaw wrote a play, called Pygmalion, in which a professor picks an ordinary flower girl and turns her into a lady, by his grooming. You may be familiar with the movie My Fair Lady, which was inspired by Shaw’s play Pyg­malion. So the Pygmalion Effect has come to mean “you get what you expect.” The main idea concerning The Pygmalion Effect is that if you believe that someone is capable of achieving greatness, then that person will indeed achieve greatness.

4 Key factors that drive the Pygmalion effect:

  1. Climate factor:
  • Tone of voice
  • Facial expression
  • Body language
  1. Input factor:
  • Challenging assignments
  • Expanding employee’s skills
  1. Response opportunity factor:
  • Allowing employees to express views, ideas and opinions
  1. Feedback factor:
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Constructive criticism

Rosenthal’s research conducted at an elementa­ry school, popularly known as the Oak School experiment, brought out interesting findings on Pygmalion effect. As part of the experiment, the teachers received a list of students’ names, who scored high on a standard IQ Test (known as Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition) con­ducted by researchers and were told these high scorers were expected to show rapid progress in the coming year. Of course, the names pro­vided were some randomly picked names. But what surprised the researchers was the results at the end of the year which showed that these randomly-picked children showed significantly greater improvement in their academic perfor­mance than did the other children in the group. When teachers expect greater intellectual development from certain children, these children do show greater intellectual development. Rosen­thal listed out four factors that drove the Pyg­malion Effect, namely:

  1. Climate factor: teachers tend to create a warmer climate for those children, both verbally and non-verbally (for example, they will smile more often at them).
  2. Input factor: teachers will tend to teach more material to children they think are smarter.
  3. Response opportunity factor: children who are expected to bloom academicallly get more chance to respond.
  4. Feedback factor: the child gets praised more when he/she is right but gets more differenti­ated feedback when he/she makes a mistake.

Can these findings be applied to the world of work and what conclusions can we draw from Rosental’s work? Obviously, the manager’s role is to drive better performance in all and so every manager needs to be aware how the biases or preconceived notions he holds, can make or mar the performance of his people. Be alert to how you behave towards all team members in terms of the input you give to each team member, the response you give to each person and how you give differentiated feedback to all.

Livingston concludes the article ‘Pygmalion in Management’ (cited earlier), “If managers are unskilled, he leaves scars on the careers of the young people, cut deeply into their self-esteem and distort their image of themselves as human beings. But if they are skillful and have high expectations, subordinates’ self-confidence will grow, their capabilities will develop and their productivity will be high. More often than he realizes, the manager is Pygmalion.”

So, when you hold positive expectations about people, you help them improve their self-

concept and their self-esteem. In turn, peo­ple believe they are capable of supreme per­formance and their performance goes up to meet the level of their own expectations. Your expectations of people and their expectations of themselves are the key factors in how well people perform at work.

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