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 employeesperformance 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. Top Next Issue
Are 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 welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.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.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- The True Costs of Cubicles
- Although cubicles do provide facility cost savings compared with walled offices, they do so at the price
of product development delays and increased product development costs. Decisions of facilities planners
can have dramatic project schedule impact.
- Encourage Truth Telling
- Getting to the truth can be a difficult task for managers. People sometimes withhold, spin, or slant
reports, especially when the implications are uncomfortable or threatening. A culture that supports
truth telling can be an organization's most valuable asset.
- Using the Parking Lot
- In meetings, keeping a list we call the "parking lot" is a fairly standard practice. As the
discussion unfolds, we "park" there any items that arise that aren't on the agenda, but which
we believe could be important someday soon. Here are some tips for making your parking lot process more
- Risk Management Risk: I
- Risk Management Risk is the risk that a particular risk management plan is deficient. It's often overlooked,
and therefore often unmitigated. We can reduce this risk by applying some simple procedures.
- Performance Mismanagement Systems: II
- One of the more counter-effective strategies incorporated into performance management systems is the
enterprise-wide uniform quota, known as a vitality curve. Its fundamental injustice breeds cynicism,
performance fraud, and toxic conflict. It produces performance assessments that are unrelated to enterprise
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- 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.