Last week I finally saw the famous musical My Fair Lady based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. I took our fair daughter, Jennifer, to see My Fair Lady at the Shaw Festival in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. We thoroughly enjoyed it.

Living up to leader's expectations - Jim ClemmerI’ve wanted to see the show for years as a result of reading and talking about “The Pygmalion Effect” in my work. This powerful leadership force was first publicized in J. Sterling Livingston’s classic 1969 Harvard Business Review article entitled “Pygmalion in Management.” He researched and wrote the article while a professor at Harvard Business School. Here’s part of his conclusion:

“The powerful influence of one person’s expectations on another’s behavior has long been recognized by physicians and behavioral scientists and, more recently, by teachers. But heretofore the importance of managerial expectations for individual and group performance has not been widely understood. I have documented this phenomenon in a number of case studies prepared during the past decade for major industrial concerns. These cases and other evidence available from scientific research now reveal:

    • What managers expect of subordinates and the way they treat them largely determine their performance and career progress.
    • A unique characteristic of superior managers is the ability to create high performance expectations that subordinates fulfill.
    • Less effective managers fail to develop similar expectations, and as a consequence, the productivity of their subordinates suffers.
    • Subordinates, more often than not, appear to do what they believe they are expected to do.”

As a psychology major and now elementary school teacher, Jenn and I had a discussion about the strong impact of a teacher’s expectations on the self-image and success of students. Study after study shows it’s profound and often quite subtle.

Whether as a teacher, coach, or manager, you clearly can’t raise performance with low expectations. Daniel Goleman’s more recent research on Emotional Intelligence leads to the same findings: “expecting the best from people can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

You can read more about The Pygmalion Effect and its profound leadership implications at “People Live Up or Down to a Leader’s Expectations” and “Leader’s Have Great Expectations.” What we see in others is often what we get.