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Chasing Pygmalion – Why Expectations Matter


The following article was submitted by James Meachin, a consultant with business psychologists Nicholson-McBride and examines the damaging effects experienced during a downturn and the influence on workforce morale.

Following the competition for human capital, organisations across the world today face an economic struggle, as the downturn places a new emphasis on the bottom line of the balance sheet. For hard-pressed executives seeking a way forward, part of the answer lies in yesterday’s lesson. Human capital is still of tremendous value to organisations, perhaps even more so now, when only the fittest succeed.

So what should be done? The key rests with the basics – getting the simple things right. A damaging effect of any downturn is the influence on workforce morale. The importance of this is highlighted by a psychological phenomenon known as the Pygmalion effect, whereby high expectation breeds high performance, and low expectation leads to low performance. Crucially, the expectations of influential people can affect the performance of those around them.

For example, schoolteachers’ expectations about a pupil’s performance can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the pupil performs ‘as expected’, even when these expectations are unjustified. The reason for this is that through working with the pupil, the teacher, perhaps unintentionally, communicates that either good or poor performance is expected of them. For positive expectations, this may take the form of active encouragement, praising success and increased attention. These actions will, in turn, influence pupils’ expectations about themselves, and therefore their performance.

In business terms, this highlights the role of those with the most influence over human capital – the front-line management. Although managers who genuinely expect their people to succeed are a valuable asset, there are, of course, a great many factors that contribute to success. The most powerful influence is the manager who expects failure. In this case, the Pygmalion effect dictates that these expectations will be translated into reality. This can happen in many ways. In direct terms, managers may openly display their lack of faith in the organisation, or parts of it, undermining the motivation of the team and suffocating the belief to succeed.

Indirectly, managers may not be fully aware of their doubts, let alone the fact they are passing them onto their staff. This is because in face-to-face communication, only 7% of the message is conveyed by the meaning of the words. The other 93% is expressed, often subconsciously, through body language and features of the voice such as pace and tone. One only has to talk to a small child, or the family pet to see this case in point. Therefore, the expectations of all but the most sensitive manager will be expressed, whether consciously or not, to their workforce.

The lesson here is that while doing the right things may not guarantee success, doing the wrong thing will almost certainly bring failure. To prevent this, it is important to stay close to your front-line managers. In truth, they are often the most relied on and overworked area of any business – a lot rests on them and their attitude. Be aware of their expectations – are they harboring any doubts? Are they uncertain about the future, and perhaps feeling left out? Only open two-way communication will allow any issues to be cleared and things to move on – show faith in your managers, have high expectations of them, and prevent negative expectations from cramping the human capital that drives your organisation.

James Meachin can be contacted through the London office of Nicholson McBride Ltd at:

Nicholson McBride Ltd
10 Frederick Close
W2 2HD

Tel +44 (0)20 7724 0232
Fax +44 (0)20 7402 3663
e-mail: [email protected]

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