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North Central Business Journal News

(August 2001 issue)

by Sandra Kay Neal, Ph.D.

    One of the peculiar things about human interaction, which is confirmed by a large body of research, is that we tend to get what we expect.  This is called the Pygmalion Effect, or Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.  Two classic experiments illustrate this point.

    One study was done with army draftees.  Half of the drill sergeants were told that the recruits they had were in the top 10% of all recruits (they really were just an average group).  These sergeants were also told not to say anything about that to their recruits.  The other sergeants were told that they had the normal range of recruits.  The recruits were not informed of what their sergeants had been told.   At the end of their basic training, independent observers rated all the recruits on abilities and skills.  The groups whose sergeants had been misinformed about their exceptional ability level actually displayed exceptional ability, according to the independent raters.

    A second study was done within a public school.  The teachers were told at the beginning of the academic year that three or four students (whose names had been pulled randomly from a hat) were going to become brilliant according to a new test devised by Harvard University.  The teachers were told not to mention anything to any of the students.  The students were not told anything.  But at the end of the academic year, those students who had been picked at random demonstrated a significant increase in academic ability.

    In both of these studies, it was the expectations of the leaders that brought forth exceptional ability from average people.

 This phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy occurs in the world of work as well.  When managers believe that their employees will perform exceptionally well, the employees tend to perform above average.  On the other hand, when managers focus on the lack of skills or work habits of their employees, these same employees tend to perform below average.

    Managers need to develop positive expectations of their employees.  They need to assume that their employees will do the job.  The employees in return will begin to perform at the level of their managerís expectations.

    A way for managers to develop these positive expectations is to verbally state to themselves that they have exceptionally capable employees.  They also can remind themselves to notice those aspects of exceptional ability.  As they notice areas of ability, they need to mention that to their employees.  As they show their employees that they see exceptional ability, their employees will notice that ability in themselves and increase their own productivity accordingly.  When they give their employees production quotas or performance goals, they do so on the stated assumption that these people can of course reach those levels.  When those levels are approached, their managers let the employees know how impressive it is that they are doing such exceptionally high-quality work.  Employees will continue outperforming themselves. 

    Managers get what they expect.  If they expect that their employees are incompetent and lazy, the employees will oblige.  But if they expect that their employees will outperform any other employees, then the employees will be high performers.  Managers get what they expect.  Expect the best.

Sandra Kay Neal holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has 19 years experience helping organizations solve human resource issues.  Her company, Synergistic Organizational Solutions, specializes in aiding small businesses. Dr. Neal can be reached at sos_hr@localaccess.com.

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