LEADERSHIP AND THE PYGMALION EFFECT -- AN EXERCISE

Previously I have asked the question "Are you a leader?" As you are by now aware, this is not an easy question to answer. As leadership has to do with your influence on others, much of the answer to the above question has to do with your self-awareness of how you are perceived by others and the impact of your behavior on their behavior in turn.

This exercise is intended to help you realize that you are probably treating your employees and coworkers differentially and that you are sending very different and very visible messages to different employees. Please take this exercise seriously. That means taking out your pen or pencil, a piece of paper, or sitting down at your computer and typing out your response. Like anything else, what you get out of this exercise depends upon what you put into it.

Leaders are people too. I know that each of you thinks of yourself as a leader or aspiring leader. Because you're only human, it's natural for you to have preferences. The important thing is to be fully self-aware of how your perceptions and behaviors effect your relationships, especially in regard to motivating and inspiring others.

Face it! You like certain people more than you like others. However, when those certain people happen to report directly to you, or work closely with you, others in the group may perceive you acting unfairly, practicing favoritism, or having other undesirable leadership qualities that run counter to productivity, cohesiveness, and morale within your group.

So, if you're a leader and you want to powerfully influence others, you want to be careful not to create an environment of negative perceptions that run counter to your leadership effectiveness. Self-awareness and conscious choice (Intentional Relating) can lead to greater empathy skills and improved ability to motivate and inspire.

Do you treat people differently? Of course you do! We all do. It's only human.

For example, let's suppose you find employee A to be boring, unattractive, difficult to know, irritating, etc. The natural tendency would be for you to avoid or otherwise display less time and attention toward this employee. In some cases, it might be that you find this person's values offensive, or you disapprove of his or her lifestyle. These feelings and perceptions on your part may very well influence the way you interact with employee A on work related issues.

On the other hand, what if employee B has similar values to yours, an interesting personality, physical attractiveness, or other qualities that you just naturally like. You may find yourself consciously or unconsciously treating this person differentially and preferentially. Again, you're only human.

Enter the Pygmalion Effect. In the book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge talks about Reinforcing Feedback and discovering how small changes can grow. According to Senge:

If you are in a reinforcing feedback system, you may be blind to how small actions can grow into large consequences -- for better or for worse. Seeing the system often allows you to influence how it works."

Senge goes on to provide an example:

"Managers frequently fail to appreciate the extent to which their own expectations influence subordinates' performance. If I see a person as having high potential, I give him special attention to develop that potential. When he flowers, I feel that my original assessment was correct and I help him still further. Conversely, those that I regard as having lower potential languish in disregard and inattention, perform in a disinterested manner, and further justify, in my mind, the lack of attention I give them."

Psychologist Robert Merton has labeled this phenomenon "self-fulfilling prophecy." It is also known as "The Pygmalion Effect." The term has its origin in the famous George Bernard Shaw play that later became My Fair Lady. Shaw had taken the title of this play from Pygmalion, a Greek and Roman mythological character who believed so strongly in the beauty of the statue he created that the statue came to life.

You can probably think of countless examples where the Pygmalion Effect applies. For our purposes here, we will focus on the work environment. Now for the exercise:

1. Rank order your employees and coworkers based solely on personality. Ask yourself, "Which employees and coworkers do I like the most? Which employees and coworkers do I like the least? Who do I enjoy shooting the breeze with, and who do I prefer to avoid? Rank order your employees and coworkers from most likable to least likable. Be honest!

2. Is there a difference in the amount of casual conversation time that you spend with the employees and coworkers heading your list versus those who at the bottom of the list?

3. Is there a difference in your body language as you interact with those at the top of the list versus those at the bottom?

4. Is there a difference in the thoughts you have when approached by people at the top of the list versus those at the bottom of the list?

5. Do you think that your employees and coworkers are aware of these subtle differences?

6. As a leader, or aspiring leader, should you be concerned about whether or not employees are aware of these subtle differences?

Here's something that might be important for you to know. Statistically over 70% of what we communicate is nonverbal according to a 1996 UCLA study. That puts the Pygmalion Effect in a whole new light.

 

© 2005 William Carey Shearer Ph.D., M.B.A., M.P.H

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