The Pygmalion Effect

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A series of studies has demonstrated that leaders and authority figures play a major role in the successes or failures of the people under their supervision—in bringing people’s hidden strengths to the surface. In 1965, psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen conducted an experiment in a California public elementary school: They told teachers that about 20 percent of the school’s children, whose names were on a list they received, should be expected to be “intellectual bloomers”—to experience a spurt in intellectual development—based on their results on the Harvard Test of Infected Acquisition.

That’s what Rosenthal and Jacobsen told the teachers, anyway. In reality, there was no such thing as the Harvard Test of Infected Acquisition; the children had all taken a standard IQ test to establish a baseline. In addition, the names on the list of soon-to-bloom children were chosen at random. The list was an indiscriminate 20 percent sample of the entire school population.

When Rosenthal returned at the end of the year, he learned the students in the random sample labeled bloomers had signifcantly out-performed their classmates in all subjects, from language arts to mathematics. More amazingly, when he administered another IQ test to students, he found that the IQs of the bloomers had increased significantly over the course of the year.

IQ, or a person’s intelligence quotient, was believed at the time—and had been believed for decades—to be a measure of innate intelligence: You were born with a certain inherited IQ, and would die with that same IQ. Rosenthal and Jacobsen proved that students’ IQ could actually be increased significantly with high expectations.

The investigators, understanding they had created a new reality, called their result the Pygmalion effect, named for the mythical Greek sculptor who, finding no woman in the world who met his strict standards, carved his own woman out of ivory—and, with the goddess Aphrodite’s help, brought this statue to life as his living soul-mate.



Harvard professor J. Sterling Livingston replicated Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s findings in the workplace: Managers were told that their employees had been given a test to identify potential and were then given the names of those who had done best—but as in Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s experiment, the names had been chosen randomly. In his write-up of the study, titled “Pygmalion in Management,” Livingston noted two interesting things: First, managers’ expectations had a huge impact on the performance and career progress of their employees. Second, managers’ own self-perceptions—what they believed about themselves—had a subtle mirroring effect on what they believed about their subordinates; if they were confident in their ability to develop and inspire people, they would expect more of their workers, who generally responded by meeting these expectations. But if managers doubted themselves, they tended to expect less, and to receive less.

“The superior managers’ record of success and confidence in their own ability give their high expectations credibility,” Livingston wrote. “As a consequence, their subordinates accept these expectations as realistic and try hard to achieve them.”

In 2006, leadership researchers Bruce Avolio and Fred Luthans summarized a century’s worth of studies on leadership development, and they found that “The largest developmental impact was raising positive beliefs instilling in them the conviction that they were better at a performance task than they thought.” The single most reliable indicator of how successful an employee will be, in other words, is the extent to which somebody believes in her.


This has been an excerpt from The Joy Of Leadership, available to order now.

Building trust and belief in your employees begins with senior leaders role-modelling the behaviours that exemplify high-performance, innovation, critical thinking and collaboration. With high expectations should come high-levels of support and transparency. Executives demonstrating the behaviours and habits needed for leaders at all levels to thrive and flourish has a rippling effect throughout an organization. 

If you are interested in enacting this change in your organization, Potentialife can enable a cultural transformation that will unleash the potential of your people, and invigorate your organization as a whole. If you would like to hear more, read case studies of organizations we have worked with and get in contact with us, visit