The Pygmalion Effect: Rasing the Bar

February 8, 2022

by Stephen T. Messenger

Watching the Winter Olympics, I enjoy listening to the coaches talk to their athletes. These coaches are at the top of their profession, and they understand the power of high expectations in earning medals.

Their advice is always positive, and the coaches expect the athletes to perform at their very best, all the time.

In Greek literature, there was a sculptor named Pygmalion who didn’t care for the local women. Instead, he created a beautiful statue of a woman and found it so attractive, he fell in love. He asked the Goddess Venus to bring the statue to life, which she did. Pygmalion found his bride, although not in a way I’d recommend.

Researchers in the 1970s transformed this story into a theory called the Pygmalion Effect. They found leaders that have high expectations of their followers increase performance.

The first study was performed in an elementary school. After giving students a test measuring intellectual potential, researchers informed the teachers which students would most likely excel this year.

However, it was all a lie. The identified bloomers were randomly selected—not the top performers on the test.

After a year, the randomly selected students the teachers believed to have most potential performed the best. The ones who scored higher on the test, but were not in the high expectations group, performed average or below.

This study has been replicated many times over with students, military members, and adults. In general, researchers found that heaping high expectations on someone improves their performance. But why?

Initially, I thought it was because the one on the receiving end feels those expectations and steps it up. That’s part of it. But ultimately it comes down to the leader.

There’s a common theory on selection bias in sports where players with birthdays earlier in the year have a higher chance of making it to the pros. In the NHL between 1980 and 2007, 36% of all professional players were born in the first three months of the year while only 14.5% were born in the last three. So what?

Players born earlier and playing pee-wee sports are just a little bigger, faster, and more mature (months matter when you’re five) than their peers. Coaches see this small advantage and subconsciously focus a little more on the better players. They provide extra coaching, playing time, and attention.

Suddenly, this child is playing in the better leagues, on the all-star teams, and given the best coaches and resources. Coupling maturity, success, advantages, and more coaching, these children benefit from the Pygmalion Effect without ever knowing it—all because they were born in February.

The Pygmalion Effect makes me reflect on my leadership. As a coach, organizational leader, or dad, I probably focus on my top performers a little more depending on the area. I selectively have higher expectations, coach more, challenge with difficult tasks, and take additional time to mentor.

But focusing on a few individuals isn’t going to help the entire team. Leaders have to Pygmalion everyone!

This means:

  1. Expect More. Challenge your team to perform above the level they’re currently at and expect them to do it! Make sure the goals are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.
  2. Resource the Team. Give them the tools, money, and time to accomplish their goals. Leaders break down obstacles for the real work to be accomplished.
  3. Coach, Teach, and Mentor. It’s not time to step aside. Monitor and track, providing adjustments as required.
  4. Encourage. The key to the Pygmalion Effect is to expect others to perform at a higher level. You are the driver of making hard tasks seem attainable.

As you’re following the Olympics this winter, I encourage you to watch how coaches raise the bar and emulate them in your workplace and homes.


To go deeper click here: Thomas Edison’s mother knew this theory well as he struggled in school. She raised the bar for her young son and challenged him with high expectations. One person gave Edison the motivation to exceed his potential.

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