Some fifty plus years ago, noted psychologist and researcher Robert Rosenthal conducted a seminal research study on the self-fulfilling nature of a teacher’s expectations for their students.
Students in a California elementary school were administered IQ tests before the experiment. The teachers were unaware of any given students IQ score, however, they were given a list of student names that were considered potential “high achievers” based on their IQ scores. The list was actually a random sampling of students and had no correlation to any student’s performance on the IQ test.
At the end of the school year, the same IQ test was again administered and the findings indicated that the student’s teachers believed to be high achievers performed significantly better than other students based on their original IQ scores. Rosenthal’s conclusion was that a teacher’s expectation of performance has a significant influence on a student’s achievement. This phenomenon has become known as the Pygmalion Effect.
Rosenthal’s pivotal study sparked the interest of numerous subsequent researchers. Although too numerous to mention, research studies have shown comparable results when the Pygmalion Effect is studied in areas such a parenting, leadership, and even the doctor’s effect on the success of treatment modalities for chronically ill patients.
With respect to our role as managers and leaders, can we not infer from these studies that our expectations of our staff would have a similar effect on their performance? In fact, this has been shown to be true. If we believe that our team members are capable, they will likely prove us right, thus, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like a drop of water in a pond that spreads out in concentric circles from its source, our belief in our team’s resourcefulness, creativity, and capability will have a ripple effect, resulting in improved productivity, staff satisfaction, and retention.
It is important that we take stock of our perceptions regarding team members. If we see our team members as incompetent, we should expect them to prove us right again; another self-fulfilling prophesy. We must ask ourselves if they are truly incompetent; in which case, we should let them go. But what if we are the problem? What if we expect them to fail? What if we have not given them the resources, support, and confidence they need to not only succeed, but to thrive? Do we continue to suffer the consequences of our repeated self-fulfilling prophesies or do we take inventory of our personal assumptions and change them accordingly? As is often the case, the choice is ours.
*Those of us that are parents should heed this message as well.
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