Understanding the Pygmalion Effect: The Self- fulfilling Prophecy
By Chelse Benham
”What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also
depends on what sort of person you are.” C. S. Lewis
Interestingly enough, ancient Greek mythology creates an archetype for a
present day social phenomenon with an artist named Pygmalion. He carved the
perfect woman from ivory and fell in love with his own creation, naming it
Galatea. Pygmalion desperately wished she was alive. With the help of the
goddess Venus and his true belief in his creation, Galatea was brought to life.
Though the name originates from this allegory, the more precise nature of the
Pygmalion effect, also known as self-fulfilling prophecy, is demonstrated in
George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” made into the classic movie, “My Fair
Professor Henry Higgins insisted that he could take a Cockney flower girl and
turn her into a duchess. The subject of his experiment, Eliza Doolittle, actually
makes the point of the Pygmalion effect quite clear in her lines:
“You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up
(the dressing and the proper way of speaking), 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.” (www.accel-team.com)
Social scientists and psychologists use this paradigm as a metaphor for the
expectancy outcome known as the “Pygmalion effect” or self-fulfilling prophecy.
Not surprisingly, the effect has an opposite reaction known as the “Galatea
effect.” Both reflect the transference process of expectancy that occurs among
What does this have to do with business? Everything; because of the thousands
of cues, most non-verbal, expectations are transmitted and fulfilled between
people in all relationship dynamics.
According to the Accel Team Web site, self-fulfilling prophecy can be
summarized in the following principles:
• We form certain expectations of people or events. This is natural and
• We communicate those expectations with various cues.
• People tend to respond to these cues by adjusting their behavior to match
• We tend to be comfortable with people who meet our expectations,
whether they’re high or low.
• The result is that the original expectation becomes true.
• This creates a circle of self-fulfilling prophecies.
• Once formed, expectations about us tend to be self-sustaining.
The manager is Pygmalion. The Pygmalion Effect, positive self-fulfilling
prophecies and empowerment are all components of one of the most important
postulates of management.
A top priority of any executive is to make his or her employees successful. Once
high expectations have been developed and tough goals have been set, the
executive should devote his or her time and energy to supporting employees in
their work. This support helps ensure the employees’ success and ultimately the
Francisco Dao, consultant and corporate trainer specializing in organizational
performance, writes in his article, “Forget the Free Sodas –They Don’t Motivate
Anyone” found at http://www.cpsc-ccsp.ca that there are some basic principles to
cultivate a positive work performance environment. He proposes the following:
Use fairness. Lead by example. As a manager, don’t expect one thing of
your employees and then do another. If asking for time off is frowned
upon, taking time off to play golf, only belittles employees.
Challenge people with responsibility and opportunity. In a famous
1969 article, Harvard professor J. Sterling Livingston described a
successful manager: “[I]f he is skillful and has high expectations of his
subordinates, their self-confidence will grow, their capabilities will develop
and their productivity will be high. More often than he realizes, the
manager is Pygmalion.”
Give people authority over their responsibilities. A manager may feel
that making all the decisions is part of the job, but this inability to delegate
decision-making doesn’t give the necessary tools to employees thus
defeating any progress made. Furthermore, it negates any positive
progress by telling employees that they are incapable of thinking and
making the right decisions. Nothing destroys morale and creates a
suspicious culture faster than employees who feel accountable yet
powerless to accomplish their goals.
Recognize people for their work. Humans are by nature social animals,
and we naturally seek approval from others, especially those we respect.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that after basic physiological and
safety needs, the next need is for love, affection, and belonging. Assuming
your employees earn enough to live and feel safe, letting them know you
appreciate them is the next thing you can do in fulfilling their needs.
Do what you say. Don’t let the sincerity of your word be uncertain. At the
end of the day, all relationships — business or personal — are built on
trust. If you make promises and don’t deliver, how is that different than
As a manager you have an ability to bring about certain behaviors in your
employees by the way that you treat them. However, what if you are the
“Galatea” of the relationship – the employee? How are you internalizing the cues
of expectation from your superiors? Do you feel they inadequately reflect who
you really are and what you are capable of doing?
Stephen Covey, author of the “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,”
“If the only vision we have of ourselves comes from the social mirror –
from the current social paradigm and from the opinions, perceptions
and paradigms of the people around us – our view of ourselves is like
the reflection in a crazy mirror room at the carnival. These visions are
disjointed and out of proportion. They are often more projections than
reflections, projecting the concerns and character weaknesses of
people giving the input rather than accurately reflecting what we are.”
As Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and a Nazi death camp captive during World War II,
espoused, there is a fundamental principle about the nature of man. Frankl
championed the following belief, “Between stimulus and response, man has the
freedom to choose.”
As Covey writes in his book, “Many people wait for something to happen or
someone to take care of them. But people who end up with the good jobs are the
proactive ones who are solutions to problems, not problems themselves, who
seize the initiative to do whatever is necessary, consistent with correct principles,
to get the job done.”
According to Covey, listening to the language we speak is a real indicator of the
degree to which we see ourselves as reactive or proactive.
Reactive Language Proactive Language
“There’s nothing I can do.” “Let’s look at our alternatives.”
“That’s just the way I am.” “I can choose a different approach.”
“I can’t.” “I choose.”
“If only.” “I will.”
“It makes me so mad.” “I control my feelings.”
The language we use becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy or the Galatea effect. If
you are a reactive person you may feel victimized. Things may feel out of your
control. You may blame outside forces such as people, circumstances and even
the stars for things not going the direction you would want them to go. In a
reactive person, the answer lies outside of themselves. They are driven by their
feelings, thus they react to the world around them, releasing their personal power
to outside forces.
As Covey writes, “If our feelings control our actions, it is because we have
abdicated our responsibility and empowered them to do so. Proactive people
focus their efforts on things that they can do something about. Their energy is
positive, enlarging and magnifying, causing their ‘Circle of Influence’ to increase.”
If you really want to improve a situation, work on the one the thing that you have
control over – yourself. The “Circle of Influence” can be enlarged by being a
better listener, being a more cooperative and dedicated employee and being
committed to improving yourself through self awareness. Covey recommends
making strong efforts at being happier as one of the most powerful proactive
changes that can be made.
Become who you want to be. Turn inward and listen to your internal dialogue.
Are you worthy? Are you special? Do you have something to give to others that
is unique to you? If you can not answer “yes” to all of these questions then the
work begins there, inside your mind and heart. Evaluate your personal worth as
you believe it to be. If you do not, you will indiscriminately absorb and believe all
negative cues thrust upon you from others who do not have your best interest at
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what
lies within us.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes