Poor expectations can lead to poor consequences

By John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

“You see Colonel Pickering, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), 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, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.” – G.B. Shaw, Pygmalion (My Fair Lady)

In the 1960s a psychologist named Robert Rosenthal published an interesting study. Teachers of elementary students were informed at the beginning of the school year that select children in the classroom would bloom intellectually in the coming year. These children were matched with others in control/experimental pairs to assure that the matched pairs had the same initial IQ. At the end of the school year the experimental group had improved their IQ scores, some as much as 15 points (a full standard deviation), whereas there was little change in the control group.

Mr. Rosenthal noted, “When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” He labeled this phenomenon the Pygmalion Effect, and he and his colleague later wrote an intriguing book titled Pygmalion in the Classroom.

Follow-up studies showed negative expectations produce negative results. A simple example is to randomly assign two groups of college students in a psychology laboratory and inform one group the rats are “maze bright” (there is no such thing) and the other group that their rats are “maze dull.” The results of this type of study are astounding (I have actually seen this done).

Thus the reason that the gold standard in research is the double blind. In such studies, neither the experimenter nor the subjects know who are in the control and experimental groups. Studies where the experimenter knows the group assignment have been shown to produce results from inadvertent expectations; this effect is called experimenter bias. Any study where people can influence the outcome can be called into question if the design does not anticipate the Pygmalion Effect.

In 1988, J. Livingstone Sterling published an article the Harvard Business Review titled “Pygmalion in Management.” In it he showed much the same effect in the behavior of managers. The expectations managers have toward employees has a profound effect on the performance of these employees. I often caution managers when we begin a change process that it is not possible to predict who will and will not respond favorably or unfavorably. This is an effort to neutralize the Pygmalion effect.

Of greater concern is the finding that some managers harbor low expectations for everyone in the workplace, perhaps for everyone in their lives. These expectations are easy to discover in a conversation with a question such as, “Tell me about your employees.” The results of such inquiry can predict how well the direct reports of a manager perform.

I note in jest, “It is important to choose your parents with some care.” Example: Although my parents were not well schooled – my mother didn’t finish the third grade and my father didn’t complete high school – they had high expectations for me about being successful in school. In leadership development exercises, the answer to “who had had the most profound effect on your lives?” is overwhelmingly parents, then teachers (usually elementary and secondary).

Society also sets expectations for its members. Much has been written about the problem of entitlement in the work place, the phenomenon whereby people expect much without any commitment of reciprocal effort on their part. Managers often comment this is one of their major challenges in the contemporary workplace. There is much speculation about how people acquire such self-defeating expectations.

Finally, there is a compelling body of research on self-efficacy. This is basically the Pygmalion Effect applied to ourselves. How we think of ourselves, how we label our actions, both cognitively and emotionally has a profound effect on our performance. I once heard a Gallup researcher who had participated in extensive studies on children in the lowest socio-economic tier ask, “What do these children need more that anything?” There were many compelling guesses but the research showed that the answer was hope.

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John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at www.langhorneassociates.com. His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at www.beyondluck.net.