Leadership & The Pygmalion Effect

Here is a little-known secret about human nature and performance: It has so much to do with expectations and a phenomenon known as the Pygmalion Effect.

Not too long ago I had the chance to work with an organization frustrated by its bench strength. There just didn’t seem to be enough breadth and depth of rising talent, to whom the existing leaders could pass the proverbial torches. Not ready. Can’t do it. Don’t trust them with that yet. Too green. These were just some of the perceptions obstructing the senior leaders from passing down more responsibility further into the organization. 
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In guiding the CEO through preparations to coach one of his senior executives one-on-one, it became very clear that this talent shortage also created a ripple effect of challenges. Not only were junior leaders missing out on development opportunities, many were leaving as a result. Meanwhile, senior leaders tended to swoop in to do the work rather than building teams to do it instead. At the highest level, they had a COO (with COO compensation) actually doing work primarily at the Project Manager level.
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We’ll call the CEO Carl and the executive Hazel. “I want her to get out of the weeds…be more strategic. She needs to delegate more,” lamented Carl. So we crafted some comments and questions to address the topic before calling in Hazel for her coaching session. As the leader in the organization with the highest number of employees reporting up to her, getting Hazel’s conversation right was vital. Without change coming from her, there was very little chance anything else would change. Almost none.  
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The CEO started the meeting by thanking Hazel and genuinely acknowledging in specific detail the areas where he was very pleased with her performance. After about 15-20 minutes, he shifted gears into developmental areas and began with the topic noted above by calling it “Empowering Your Team: Creating an environment of ongoing growth and development where your team can do their best work.” Carl continued clarifying his theme by addressing Hazel’s allocation of time. He listed a few observations where she had been absorbed by the minutia and then asked Hazel what percentage of her week was spent on strategic thinking and planning. 
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Silence. After some thought, Hazel looked down and muttered, “Five…maybe ten percent. I don’t know…it’s low.” 
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Carl pressed forward, “Hazel when you think about the activities that take up your time in a typical week or month, what title best describes someone who does that kind of work?”
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“I’m your Chief Operations Officer,” Hazel replied, a little confused. 
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“That’s not what I asked,” said Carl. “What title best describes someone who does the kind of work you described?” Then he waited. 
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After checking the ceiling tiles for an answer, squirming in the chair and a few start-stop stammers, Hazel’s eyes became wide with embarrassment as she looked directly at Carl and said, “I’ve been acting as a project manager, not a COO.” Attempting to formulate a defense, Hazel continued, “But we just don’t have the talent we need at that level. They’re not ready. They are too green. I just don’t trust them yet with that much responsibility. And…if I’m really honest, I guess I still really like the hustle of being close the action ” 
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Carl resisted the urge to argue or solve the problem and instead asked, “In which role do you bring the most value?” 
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“COO,” Hazel replied confidently.
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“And what role do you really want to do?” Asked Carl.
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“Well, it’s been hard to give up the other stuff where I excelled, but definitely COO,” said Hazel.
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Carl smiled and continued, “Excellent. That’s what I was hoping you’d say and that’s what we need. So with that in mind, I have a couple of additional points to share about Empowering Your Team.”  He mentioned an instance where Hazel had been pretty hard on a team member and added he would like to see Hazel work not just on delegating but also on building people up. Carl asked Hazel if she knew about the Pygmalion Effect and her puzzled look gave him permission to explain.
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The Pygmalion Effect is a phenomenon whereby people will rise or fall to the level you expect of them. 
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After a long pause, Hazel offered “I think I see what you mean. If I’m always coming down hard on my team it seems like nothing is good enough and they cannot succeed, so why try. So, I need to do a better job of catching people doing things right. Is that what you mean?” 
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Carl nodded proudly with his whole body and added, “And…it cuts both ways. I think you’ve done an excellent job in that regard with Jason and just look how he’s flourished as a result.”
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Hazel continued to receive Carl’s coaching and come around to the notion that perhaps her own beliefs about her team had been an obstacle to their development and her ability to delegate and elevate. Their conversation was the first step in a wide-stretching organizational journey of building a stronger bench of leaders at multiple levels.
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Resources and actions to take to help you start using Pygmalion for better results
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  1. Read this post by EOS on how to Delegate and Elevate” and go through the noted activity.
  2. Watch this short clip from a lecture by author Liz Wiseman on the traits that reflect a Diminisher vs. Multiplier” approach to leadership and Take the Quiz to check your style.
  3. Increase the quality and quantity of your feedback. One of the best ways to set and reinforce high expectations is to let people know how they’re doing, yet survey after survey indicates employees crave feedback on their job performance and aren’t getting enough of it.
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“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe