BJNI Writer

The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated.” — George Bernard Shaw

The Pygmalion Effect proposes that leaders’ expectations and behaviors will predict their followers’ behavior and performance.

Named after a sculptor who fell in love with one of his statues, a character in one of ancient Roman poet Ovid’s works, the Pygmalion Effect was defined by psychologist and researcher Robert Rosenthal.

Rosenthal called it “the phenomenon whereby one person’s expectation for another person’s behavior comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Pygmalion was also the name George Bernard Shaw chose for his 1913 stage play, which inspired the musical “My Fair Lady.” Shaw’s work explores the notion that the way one person treats another can be transforming, for better or worse.

When it comes to supervisor-employee relationships, the Pygmalion Effect can have great influence on employee motivation and success.

“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur,” wrote Rosenthal in 1985.

In business, the Pygmalion Effect deems that when managers don’t expect their employees to be successful, it’s likely they will fail. Leaders who expect their followers to achieve their goals are likely to do so.

It makes sense then, that the most effective leaders have strong relationships with their employees and less voluntary turnover.

Successful leaders have an understanding of what, specifically, motivates employees, and they know how to encourage intrinsic, or internal, motivation and when it’s appropriate to rely on extrinsic, or external, motivation.

Employees who are intrinsically motivated are driven by things other than a paycheck and positive feedback, which are extrinsic motivators. They find their work meaningful and satisfying and have a desire for self-improvement. They want to take on challenges and find it easier to overcome obstacles.

To help employees develop a strong sense of internal motivation, managers should strive to help them find these intrinsic rewards: a sense of purpose; a sense of choice that creates a feeling of meaningful control over their work; a feeling of competence; and a sense of progress.

You can’t overindulge your employees with intrinsic rewards.

While external rewards have their value, it’s easy to overdo it, and when that happens the work becomes about the rewards rather than the work’s real purpose and meaning.

Dan Cable, a professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, uses a more biological approach to understanding and driving employee engagement and motivation.

“There’s a part of our brains called ‘the seeking system’ that creates the natural impulses to learn new skills and take on meaningful tasks,” Cable wrote in March for Harvard Business Review. “…When our seeking systems are activated, we feel more motivated, purposeful and zestful.”

The problem, Cable writes, is that most organizations are not run in a way that allows employees to seek through exploring, experimenting and learning.

For example, an employee is enticed to a new job by the promise of opportunities to learn and grow, but he soon finds that the company culture doesn’t encourage those things. He finds that his supervisor and others above him are more concerned about protocol than personal development, and they are not interested in his efforts to improve processes. They won’t let him experiment or learn. As a result, his work becomes routine and boring, and he shuts down.

Cable suggests managers try a few things that don’t require an organizational overhaul to help keep employees engaged and motivated:

“There are three small but consequential nudges that trigger employees’ seeking systems: encouraging them to play to their strengths, creating opportunities to experiment, and helping them personalize the purpose of the work.”


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