Today’s Cognitive Bias is one of my all-time favorites. The Pygmalion Effect was named after a mythical sculptor who fell in love with one of the statues he carved. It is sometimes called the Rosenthal-Jacobson effect after two researchers who demonstrated the effect in a research study in a 1968 book. The basic premise of the Pygmalion Effect indicates that a person’s expectations of someone’s performance impacts their actual performance. That seems…unlikely right? Well lets thing about it.
The Rosenthal-Jacobson study showed that when teachers believed students were smarter than their classmates, regardless of their actual intellect, those students later demonstrated themselves to have higher IQs. So wait. Someone believing I’m smarter than I am might actually make me smarter? SIGN ME UP. But sadly, that’s probably not what happened. What likely happened was that when teachers believed a student was smarter; they graded them differently, treated them differently, and invested more time in them which led to higher performance.
While the Rosenthal-Jacobson test did not test the inverse of the Pygmalion effect, damaging the IQ of students who they believed to be not as smart; the possibility would be potentially damaging. So clearly this is one we need to figure out. Let’s think about a workplace example.
A new person at work is assigned to your team and you are told that this person is a top performer, a huge asset to your team, and that this person is being postured for senior leadership someday. Would you treat them differently? Probably right? If they ask to go to a training event, and you have a few other people requesting the same, which would you send? The one who probably needs the training most? Or the one who could someday be your boss and might get the most out of it? Tough choice.
Would you expect that person to perform at a higher level of proficiency than the rest of your team? Probably right? But, would they? Or would they just be benefiting from your perception of them? Would you have a different assessment model for them? This is what we do right? We compare people in their development with a relative consideration for how far they have come and how much they have grown? So how do we do this fairly when we have different expectations for different people?
Not easily. One way to try to mitigate the Pygmalion Effect is to limit your exposure to the opinions of others. To not look at those SAT scores. To not listen to how much potential your new team member might have, but sometimes that’s impractical. Holding them to a higher standard could backfire, so that doesn’t seem wise either. Instead, I think we should just do our best to put all our expectations aside and measure real performance, not growth, not expectations. Easier said than done, but worth a try!