Pygmalion Effect

In his book, The Excellence Dividend, Tom Peters writes, “In an Oscar acceptance speech, the late director Robert Altman said: ‘The role of the director is to create a space where the actors and actresses can become more than they have ever been before, more than they’ve dreamed of being.'”

You’ve likely had a limiting boss, teacher, sports coach, or parent who stunted your growth. And you’ve likely had someone who saw greater potential — perhaps more than you saw in yourself — and helped you grow.

This has been called The Pygmalion Effect. In his Harvard Business Review classic “Pygmalion in Management,” J. Sterling Livingston draws upon the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who carved a statue of a beautiful woman that was later brought to life. George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (which was the basis for “My Fair Lady”) used a similar theme. In the play, Eliza Doolittle explains, “The difference between a flower girl and a lady is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.” Livingston presents a number of his own studies, as well as other research, to prove that “If a manager’s expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If his expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor.”

Dov Eden, leadership professor and author of Pygmalion in Management: Productivity as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, reports, “The Pygmalion Effect is great science that is under applied. It hasn’t made the difference it should have in the world, and that’s very disappointing.”

The goldfish analogy illustrates the impact of expectations and beliefs. If you buy a little goldfish and keep it in a small bowl, it will grow a few inches for the rest of its life. Move that same fish to a large aquarium, and it will double or triple in size. Put the goldfish in a large pond, and it can grow up to a foot long. The key factor determining the size of the fish is the size of its environment.

Many managers see people as they are and treat them according to what they see. He or she would take a small goldfish and keep it in the little bowl because it would be inefficient and wasteful to put it in a larger environment. Strong leaders see people as they could be and coach them to grow that potential.




Solving problems

Enabling others to solve problems

Directing and controlling

Teaching and engaging

Seeing people as they are

Developing people into what they could be







Heroic manager

Facilitative leader

Quick fix to symptoms

Search for systemic root causes

Are you a small fishbowl manager or large fish tank leader? How do you know? You can use our Fish Tank Factor mini quiz for a quick self-assessment. A far more accurate way to assess your coaching skills is a 360 assessment.

Less effective managers often focus on fixing weaknesses. Highly effective leaders draw out and build on strengths. As organizational psychologist and executive coach, Doug MacKie writes in his book, Strength-Based Leadership Coaching in Organizations: An Evidence-Based Guide to Positive Leadership, “Both coaching and positive psychology share certain assumptions in their focus on the positive, the belief that people want to learn and most importantly that individuals contain within themselves, the solution to their own challenges.”