The influential power of a manager’s expectations on the performance of his team has been recognised by human resource specialists, educationists and psychologists.

The way a manager treats his subordinates will largely determine their performance and productivity at work. If the manager’s expectations of his subordinates are high, productivity is likely to increase. Conversely, if his expectations are low, their productivity tends to be poor.

In other words, subordinates appear to perform according to their managers’ perception of their abilities. This is the Pygmalion effect.

Who is Pygmalion?

In Greek mythology, Pygmalion, a sculptor, wanted to create the ideal woman, so he carved one out of ivory. The result was Galatea, whom he fell in love with.

The Pygmalion effect takes its name from Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’s most popular play, Pygmalion. Language expert Professor Henry Higgins accepts a bet from his friend Colonel Pickering that he can pass off Eliza Doolittle, a common flower girl, as a duchess by transforming her speech and manners.

For Eliza, the most important change is her greater self-esteem, a result of being treated with respect and kindness by people like the Colonel.

As she tells him in the final act of the play: “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will.”

Great expectations

In one study conducted by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the company discovered that new insurance agents, regardless of their sales aptitude, performed better in outstanding agencies than in average and poor agencies.

Six of the best agents worked under the best manager. Another six average agents worked with an average manager while six poor agents worked with the least capable manager. The best group of six agents was responsible for two-thirds of the premiums achieved by the entire agency.

People in the organisation started to refer to the best group as “Super staff” because of their high esprit de corps. In the first 12 weeks, their performance exceeded their target by 40 per cent.

The performance of the superior agents rose to meet the expectations of their ablest manager while the weaker agents perished as predicted by their poor performing manager.

What distinguished the superior team’s manager from the average and poor managers were:

* his greater confidence;

* the right attitude in selecting, motivating and training his team; and

* his ability to develop and coach his team to a higher level of performance.

The superior team manager’s record of success and confidence in his own ability enabled him to believe that his high expectations were credible and achievable. His positive attitude rubbed off onto his team who were spurred on to achieve the results their manager believed they were capable of delivering.

Believe in your staff

Managers have a profound cascading effect on their younger subordinates as they gain more work experience. Their beliefs gradually develop, and they see themselves as successful managers in the near future. Their own aspirations and their manager’s expectations increasingly become believable and workable.

A young graduate is strongly influenced by his first manager at work. If the latter is not willing to develop him, the young graduate will set lower standards than what he is capable of achieving. His self-esteem will be dented and negative attitudes will develop.

Managers, therefore, play a pivotal role in an organisation’s productivity. Give your team a positive image to live up to and chances are, they won’t disappoint you.

Tomorrow: How to apply the Pygmalion effect in your workplace