Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 47;   November 21, 2001: Pygmalion Side Effects: Bowling a Strike

Pygmalion Side Effects: Bowling a Strike

by

Elise slowly walked back to her office, beaten. Her supervisor, Alton, had just given Elise her performance review — her third consecutive "meets expectations." No point now to her strategy of giving 120% to turn it all around. She is living a part of the Pygmalion Effect, and she's about to experience the Pygmalion Side Effects.
Bowling pins for ten-pin bowling

Bowling pins for ten-pin bowling. Photo (cc) Stefan Grazer.

Many managers know of the Pygmalion Effect, in which our expectations not only influence how we see employee performance, but also influence the employee's performance. This happens because we telegraph our expectations through tiny cues that are out of our awareness. When people pick up these cues, their behavior tends toward our expectations, and our expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies.

You might know this from personal experience. Perhaps your supervisor expected the best of you, and you delivered, and felt great. Or perhaps you were expected to fail, and you did. It's difficult to excel when your supervisor thinks you're a loser.

But there's much more to it than the Pygmalion Effect — there are the Pygmalion Side Effects. Managers who leave in place employees whom they believe are poor performers risk lost productivity, higher turnover, and interpersonal conflict, not only among the poor performers, but among other employees, too.

For example, the people around Elise also pick up on Alton's low opinion of her, which influences their expectations and how they behave toward Elise. They're less accepting of her contributions, and they might come to distrust her and even dislike her. These Pygmalion Side Effects influence Elise's performance, perhaps even more than the original Pygmalion Effect.

And the team's Managers who leave poor
performers in place risk triggering
the Pygmalion Side Effects —
lost productivity among
other employees
performance can degrade. With or without a spoken agreement, the team might isolate Elise, depriving itself of contributions she might have made. Team members might second-guess her work, or distrust her opinions, or they might even reject her valid contributions. Interpersonal conflict can erupt, and that can lead to defects and project delays.

The Pygmalion Side Effects are something like bowling a strike. The bowling ball itself knocks down some of the pins, but most of the pins are knocked down by other pins.

If you're a manager, what can you do about a poor performer?

Beware perceptions
Recognize that it's possible that you're seeing the performance as poorer than it is. You can clear this up only by greater first-person involvement with the work of your organization — the whole organization. Email and third-hand communications are not first-person involvement.
Change something — carefully
If there's a performance issue, your best options are training, reassignment, transfer, or termination. Leaving poor performers in place and hoping for the best isn't likely to work, and could threaten team performance.
Go for the root cause
In today's highly interconnected work teams, evaluating personal performance can be difficult. If someone isn't doing well, some of the rest of the team could be playing a role. If you terminate a "poor performer" when the root cause is actually elsewhere in the team, the team will likely produce a new "poor performer."

The next time you're thinking about someone's poor performance, try not to bowl a strike. Go to top Top  Next issue: Dangerous Phrases  Next Issue

For a discussion of the connection between confirmation bias and the Pygmalion effect, see "Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II," Point Lookout for November 30, 2011.

For more on the Pygmalion Effect, see:

  • J.S. Livingston, "Pygmalion in Management." Harvard Business Review, reprint #88509, in The Best of the Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School Press, 1991.
  • "Expectations May Alter Outcomes Far More Than We Realize," by Sharon Begley, in The Wall Street Journal, p. B1, November 7, 2003.

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenvVJNFtYxIOnwwWiNner@ChacdjrzcbtwVgDBLgzNoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Thumb upDecisions, Decisions: Part I
Most of us have participated in group decision-making. The process can be frustrating and painful, but it can also be thrilling. What processes do groups use to make decisions? How do we choose the right process for the job?
My right foot. Arrow indicates the location of the break.My Right Foot
There's nothing like an injury or illness to teach you some life lessons. Here are some things I learned recently when I temporarily lost some of my independence.
Tenacious under full sailThe Solving Lamp Is Lit
We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
Clutter in the Leonardo Module of the International Space StationVirtual Clutter: Part I
With some Web searching, you can find abundant advice for decluttering your home or office. And people are even thinking about decluttering email inboxes. But the problem of clutter is far more widespread.
Artist's conception of an asteroid belt around the star VegaVirtual Clutter: Part II
Thorough de-cluttering at work involves more than organizing equipment and those piles of documents that tend to accumulate so mysteriously. We must also address the countless non-physical entities that make work life so complicated — the virtual clutter.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Balancing talk time and the value of the contributionComing March 29: Virtual Blowhards
Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics for controlling virtual blowhards. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeAnd on April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenvrfNqbFUaCVmxeWxner@ChacgStuAqSkufXJwCMnoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Conflict Resolution Skills for Leaders
ConflConflict Resolution Skills for Leadersict is inherent in collaborative work. When conflict is constructive, it produces better outcomes. When it's destructive, it can be an insurmountable obstacle to success. In this program, we explore the connections between the outcomes of collaboration and conflict in both of its forms. And we emphasize the skills needed most by leaders. The leader's task is to manage conflict so as to ensure that the group achieves its objective with its capacity to collaborate intact, or even enhanced. Rick Brenner shows team leaders and team sponsors the techniques they need to manage team conflict for relationship safety and better outcomes. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Influencing Outcomes Without Authority
Your Influencing Outcomes Without Authorityability to influence others — whether upward, downward, laterally, or within a team — always depends on both the quality of your relationships with the people you influence, and on your perception and their perception of your personal power. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you the techniques for making things happen not by using formal organizational power, but by using informal, personal power. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times
When Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Timesa project team is on task, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. We get through it somehow. Hard times are something else altogether. Despondency, disillusionment, resource shortages, unexpected and severe failure of the plan, and toxic conflict can erode morale. How can leaders deal with such situations? Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Technical Debt: A Workshop for Enterprise Leaders
TechnTechnical Debt Management for Enterprise Leadersical debt is more than mere IT jargon. It's a metaphor that refers to the accumulation of technical artifacts that really ought to be retired, replaced, rewritten, re-implemented, or, if absent, created. We can find technical debt in almost any system, including those that seem to be working well. So what's the problem? The problem is the "interest charges." Systems carrying technical debt are more difficult to maintain, more difficult to extend or enhance, and more difficult to use, than they would be if we "retired" the debt. This engaging and eye-opening program points the way to a path that leads your organization out of technical debt, to make it more adaptable, more transformable, and more agile. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.