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

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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

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!

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.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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:

A hearing in the U.S. Senate, in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is responding to questions about appropriations.What Makes a Good Question?
In group discussion or group problem solving, many of us focus on being the first one to provide the answer. The right answer can be good; but often, the right question can be better.
A senator rests on a cot in the Old Senate Chamber during a filibusterUntangling Tangled Threads
In energetic discussions, topics and subtopics get intertwined. The tangles can be frustrating. Here's a collection of techniques for minimizing tangles in complex discussions.
Winslow Homer's painting, BlackboardFill in the Blanks
When we conceal information about ourselves and our areas of responsibility, we make room for others to speculate. Speculation is rarely helpful. It's wise to fill in the blanks.
Rep. John Boehner displays the Speaker's gavelEnding Sidebars
We say that a sidebar is underway in a meeting when two or more meeting participants converse without having been recognized by the chair. Sidebars can be helpful, but they can also be disruptive. How can we end sidebars quickly and politely?
North Fork Fire in Yellowstone, 1988The Risks of Too Many Projects: II
Although taking on too many projects risks defocusing the organization, the problems just begin there. Here are three more ways over-commitment causes organizations to waste resources or lose opportunities.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Bay of Pigs, CubaComing September 30: Seven More Planning Pitfalls: II
Planning teams, like all teams, are susceptible to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Three of these most relevant to planners are False Consensus, Groupthink, and Shared Information Bias. Available here and by RSS on September 30.
Assembling an IKEA chairAnd on October 7: Seven More Planning Pitfalls: III
Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule. Available here and by RSS on October 7.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about 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 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!