The Pygmalian Effect: Expect More, Get More

November 13, 2012

“Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.”
–Henry Ford

Employee MotivationEmployee Motivation: Set High Expectations

When you believe in someone, they have a way of believing in themselves. Lifting your own expectation of your employees is the fastest way to help your employees increase their expectations for themselves. And once they have elevated expectations, you will see employee motivation climb and begin to experience an increase in performance. Last summer I asked Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “What are the three things schools can do to improve?” His response was lightening quick, “Lift expectations!” It would appear that Secretary Duncan understands the Pygmalion Effect.

The Pygmalion Effect

“If he is unskilled, he leaves scars on the careers of the young men (and women), cuts deeply into their self-esteem and distorts their image of themselves as human beings. But if he is skillful and has high expectations of his subordinates, their self-confidence will grow, their capabilities will develop and their productivity will be high. More often than he realizes, the manager is Pygmalion,” says J. Livingston in his article “Pygmalion in Management” (September/October, 1988 Harvard Business Review).

The skilled manager knows that:

  • Treating and setting expectations for employees has a significant impact on outcomes
  • Creating a high-expectation culture will result in higher performance
  • When expectations are clear, employees are clear and deliver on results

Employee Motivation: Expect More, Get More

Think about professors you have had that lifted the bar high and how much harder you worked to deliver remarkable essays and test results. Consider bosses that did not want to be your friend, but wanted you to deliver your best, and how much harder and more disciplined you were in your work.

Employees want purpose; they want to feel good about the work they produce. Employee motivation will come from the meaning that arises from the clarity of expectations. Every morning your employees don’t wake up and say, “Wonder how I can do the least amount of work today.” More likely they wake up motivated to do a great job. If you do not create the culture that drives greatness and lifts the bar on expectations, you will likely get less than stellar results.

Going Too Far or Not Enough

CEOs often don’t know where to draw the line on expectations. On one hand, if they set the line too high, employees never reach the goal and feel demoralized. If they set the line too low, employees don’t feel challenged and may produce just enough to clear the bar. They should set the bar high, but it should be achievable. Here’s why: Every time you meet an expectation, your brain sends off a dopamine high as a reward. Failing to meet an expectation, on the other hand, can send you into a fight or flight reaction, according to David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work” (HarperCollins, 2009).

Once your employees meet expectations, raise the bar a little bit the next time. Don’t raise it mid-project, though, or raise it too much at any one time. That will decrease motivation and perhaps send your coworkers into fight-or-flight mode. For further reading on expectations and bar-setting, check out Alina Tugmen’s NY Times article, “What Did You Expect? It Makes a Difference”.

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