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The Pygmalion Effect: Influencing Employee Behavior

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  • 0:03 The Power of Expectations
  • 1:24 The Pygmalion Effect
  • 2:58 The Pygmalion Effect…
  • 4:17 Influencing Workplace Behavior
  • 6:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sherri Hartzell

Sherri has taught college business and communication courses. She also holds three degrees including communications, business, educational leadership/technology.

Setting expectations for employee performance and behavior is one of the primary responsibilities of management. This lesson defines the Pygmalion Effect and describes how it is used to influence employee behavior.

The Power of Expectations

It's 5:00 AM, and Sam's alarm clock begins to ring. When he reaches to hit snooze so that he can have five more precious minutes of sleep, he accidently knocks it off of the table. He has to scramble to find it in the dark. Unfortunately, in the process, he also bangs his head on the nightstand. Sam says to himself, 'This is going to be a horrible day.'

As Sam goes about his day, it seems like everything goes wrong for him. Because he was so focused on the alarm clock falling onto the floor and not on his driving, he ends up rear-ending another car on his way into work. After exchanging insurance information with the other driver, Sam finishes his commute to the office. Once there, he is in a bad mood, so he is impatient with his coworkers. They, in turn, are rude right back. Sam thinks to himself, 'See, I knew this was going to be a bad day. Why did I even get out of bed?'

Now, Sam is not a physic who can read the future, so why did his predictions of having a bad day come true? The answer can be found in the expectation that he set for himself the moment that he said, 'Today is going to be a horrible day.'

The Pygmalion Effect

The idea that most people will adapt their behavior to meet an expectation is known as the Pygmalion Effect. A more common term used to describe this phenomenon is called the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Both terms are used to describe how a person will consciously or unconsciously learn of an expectation and act in a way that is consistent with that expectation. However, it does not make the expectations come full circle when you just have an expectation and then it happens. Instead, the expectation has to be the cause or reason why something occurs. For example, let's say you walked outside this morning and thought that it was going to rain, and later it did. This would not be a result of the Pygmalion Effect or a self-fulfilling prophecy because it would have rained even if you had not predicted it.

So, while your expectation of rain did come true, it did not come true because you expected it to. Again, the expectation itself has to cause some change in behavior to make the expectation come true.

There are four main principles to the Pygmalion Effect:

  • We form or learn of the expectation
  • The expectation is communicated
  • Behavior is adapted to meet the expectation
  • The expectation then becomes true

The Pygmalion Effect in the Workplace

Meeting the expectations that others set for us is something that we do from early on in our lives. In school, we work hard to learn new concepts and perform well on tests to meet the expectations of our parents and teachers. In sports, we push ourselves physically to meet the expectations of our coaches, teammates and fans. In relationships, we adapt our behavior to meet the expectations of our partner. Likewise, in the workplace, an employee will adapt his or her behavior and level of performance to meet the expectations set by their manager and the organization.

The expectations that a manager holds of his or her employees can powerfully influence the employees' behavior. Managers must understand this influence and how to harness it to work towards organizational goals. The most common way a manager can form an expectation and communicate it to an employee is through performance reviews. The performance review serves as an appraisal of an employee's past performance, the level of raise that he or she will be awarded and areas of improvement. What many managers fail to realize is that the performance appraisal is also a powerful tool that can be used to influence future performance.

Influencing Workplace Behavior

To better see how the Pygmalion Effect is used to influence workplace behavior through performance reviews, let's look at the following example.

Performance reviews are a powerful tool in the workplace
Pygmalion Effect performance review

Marcus is a customer service representative at Furniture Mania. He is great with people and does his best to sympathize with customers when they receive furniture that was slightly damaged during delivery. However, he has also been known to be sarcastic and condescending to customers who are rude to him and who take out the issues they have with the furniture on him directly. On the other hand, Marcus has also saved several accounts from needing to be fully refunded due to his tact and charm.

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