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Carol Kinsey GomanPygmalion in the Classroom, one of the most controversial publications in the history of educational research, shows how a teacher’s expectations can motivate student achievement.

This classic study gave prospective teachers a list of students who had been identified as “high achievers.” The teachers were told to expect remarkable results from these students, and at the end of the year, the students did indeed make sharp increases on their IQ test scores.

In reality, these children had been chosen at random, not as a result of any testing. It was the teachers’ belief in their potential that was responsible for the extraordinary results. The children were never told they were high achievers, but this message was delivered subtly and nonverbally through expectancy behaviours such as facial expressions, gestures, touch, and spatial relationships.

In much the same way, a leader’s expectations of employees is a key factor in how well people perform at work. Pygmalion leadership is in operation when staff excels in response to the manager’s belief that they are capable of success and expected to do great things. The effect was described by J. Sterling Livingston in Pygmalion in Management: “The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them.”

Research validates the power of this “self-fulfilling prophecy” in the workplace. Tel Aviv University professor Dov Eden has demonstrated the Pygmalion effect in all sorts of work groups, across all sectors and industries. It almost sounds too simple to be true, but Eden found that if supervisors or managers hold positive expectations about the performance of those they lead – for instance believing that they can solve a challenging problem – performance improves.

Of course, we’ve all seen instances where the reverse is true – where a leader’s expectations (as judged by her nonverbal communication) undermines staff performance and lowers productivity. And some of these negative leadership behaviours aren’t all that subtle. Take, for example, an email I one received:

My boss drives us crazy with her mixed messages. She says things like, “You are always welcome in my office” and “You are all an important part of the team.” At the same time, her nonverbal communication is constantly showing how unimportant we are to her. She never makes eye contact, shuffles papers when others talk, writes email while we answer her questions and generally does not give her full attention. In fact, we don’t even rate her half attention! Then she wonders why we feel unappreciated.

Here’s a suggestion from my book, The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work: Imagine that you found out that everyone on your staff had been identified as a high achiever. And imagine that this was a secret you couldn’t share with anyone on your staff – except through your body language. How would you let people know they were special? (More eye contact? Appreciative nods? Smiles?) Remember that what you say is motivating only if your nonverbal signals corroborate it.

Once you get a good idea of what you would do, take one full week and treat everyone who works for or with you as if they were potential stars. See if at least some of them don’t start living up to the high expectations your body language sends.

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.

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