The power of expectancy
The invisible influence of the Pygmalion Effect
“If managers are unskilled, they leave scars on the careers of young people, cut deeply into their self-esteem, and distort their image of themselves as human beings. But if they are skillful and have high expectations, subordinates’ self-confidence will grow, their capabilities will develop, and their productivity will be high. More often than one realizes, the manager is Pygmalion.” — J. Sterling Livingston
Pygmalion Effect — the “Self-fulfilling Prophecy”
J. Sterling Livingston starts his famous 1969 HBR article Pygmalionin Management as follows:
In George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle explains: “You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), 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.”
Livingston observes that:
“Most managers, like Professor Higgins, unintentionally treat their subordinates in a way that leads to lower performance than they are capable of achieving. The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them. If managers’ expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor. It is as though there were a law that caused subordinates’ performance to rise or fall to meet managers’ expectations.”
Livingston illustrates the above conclusion by describing an insurance agency that allocated sales agents to three groups: the superior performers, the average, and the poor performers — although none of the groups was labelled as such.
The perceived best agents were assigned to a perceived superior manager. Those agents perceived as average to a presumed average manager, and the remainder to a perceived less able manager.
After 12 weeks, the “superior” group achieved results that “far surpassed the most optimistic expectations” of the district manager, whilst productivity in the “poor” group declined and attrition increased:
“The performance of the superior agents rose to meet their managers’ expectations, while that of the weaker ones declined as predicted.”
However, although the district manager expected only average performance from the middle group, he was surprised to find that its productivity had increased significantly.
This, Livingston writes, happened because the manager in charge of the group refused to believe she was less capable than the manager of the “superior” group, or that sales agents in that group had any greater ability.
As a result, her “average” group increased its productivity year on year by a higher percentage than the “superior” group.
“It is of special interest that the self-image of the manager of the “average” unit did not permit her to accept others’ treatment of her as an “average” manager, just as Eliza Doolittle’s image of herself as a lady did not permit her to accept others’ treatment of her as a flower girl. The assistant manager transmitted her own strong feelings of efficacy to her agents, created mutual expectancy of high performance, and greatly stimulated productivity”.
Livingston draws several further conclusions in the article (my emphasis in bold):
Managers are more effective in communicating low expectations to their subordinates than in communicating high expectations to them, even though most managers believe exactly the opposite. It usually is astonishingly difficult for them to recognize the clarity with which they transmit negative feelings.
Positive feelings, on the other hand, often do not come through clearly enough. The manager of the “superior” group was unaware that his boss considered him to be the best of the three group managers.
Subordinates will not be motivated to reach high levels of productivity unless they consider the boss’s high expectations realistic and achievable.
A manager’s confidence in their own ability and record of success give their high expectations credibility. As a consequence, their subordinates accept these expectations as realistic and try hard to achieve them.
Researchers at AT&T found that the correlation between how much a company expects of an employee in the first year and how much that employee contributes during the next five years was “too compelling to be ignored.”
10 of the top 15 Ford salespeople in New England were in 3 (out of approximately 200) dealerships, and 5 of the top 15 were in one dealership. Four of these five had previously worked for other dealers without outstanding success.
I first became deeply aware of the importance of expectancy in the 1990’s, working alongside my then colleague, Joan Lancourt.
Joan had been at MIT Sloan where, along with Ed Nevis and Helen Vassallo, she conducted extensive research into organisational transformation, the results of which were published in the 1996 book Intentional Revolutions.
Joan and her colleagues identified the following seven channels through which people in organisations pick up the clues, cues, signs, and signals from which they infer “the way we do things round here”:
I described the seven channels in more detail in this recent post.
In brief, executives and the consulting firms that traditionally advise them devote:
the vast majority of their attention to Structural Rearrangement, Extrinsic Rewards, and Coercion
far less attention to Persuasive Communication and Participation
very little attention to Role Modelling
hardly any attention to Expectancy.
Even 25 years after Livingston’s seminal HBR paper, Joan found that senior executives had a very poor grasp of what expectancy is, let alone paid much attention to it, largely because “To utilize expectancy is to be emotionally involved”.
Traditionally, senior executives in particular and managers in general have been encouraged to hold themselves aloof and remain emotionally distant. However, as Joan and her colleagues found in their research:
“Unlike the use of extrinsic rewards, structural rearrangement, coercion, and some forms of persuasive communication and participation, expectancy depends on close interpersonal relations.”
Trust in the character of executives is central to how expectancy plays out in practice:
“If trust is high, establishing positive self-fulfilling prophecies is easy. However, where mistrust is high, efforts by leaders to set positive expectations may well be seen as manipulative attempts to get people to work harder.”
As with the other six channels, people pick up on clues, cues, signs, and signals communicated through the expectancy channel all the time, even if those sending these signals are unaware of doing so:
“Managers establish expectancies whether they are aware of them or not. We argue that raising awareness about these dynamics of expectancy will enable its more purposeful and productive use in furthering the process of organizational transformation.”
Trust, Humility, and Expectancy
In his 2013 book Humble Inquiry Edgar Schein, a giant in the study of organisational culture, who passed away aged 94 on 26 January 2023, points out that:
“Saying to oneself that one should ask more and tell less does not solve the problem of building a relationship of mutual trust. The underlying attitude of competitive one-upmanship will leak out if it is there. Humble Inquiry starts with the attitude and is then supported by our choice of questions. The more we remain curious about the other person rather than letting our own expectations and preconceptions creep in, the better our chances are of staying in the right questioning mode. We have to learn that diagnostic and confrontational questions come very naturally and easily, just as telling comes naturally and easily. It takes some discipline and practice to access one’s ignorance, to stay focused on the other person.”
In helping organisations throughout Europe, Asia, and the US over the past 35 years to create future-fit cultures of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness I’ve found that the easiest way for individuals to develop the stance Schein describes above is by cultivating a 2D3D mindset.
A person with a 2D3D mindset adopts and actively maintains the awareness that no matter how important, experienced, or senior they may be, no individual ever sees the whole picture in any situation.
Each of us only ever has a biased, incomplete, and one-sided 2D view on a 3D reality that none of us can ever see in its entirety.
By maintaining this active awareness, we naturally and automatically become curious about the 2D perspectives of others — what are they seeing that we’re currently missing?
However, if we expect that a colleague’s perspective offers little or no value to our collective understanding, we will subtly — or not so subtly — communicate these low expectations, and this self-fulfilling prophecy will further undermine trust.
Cultivating a 2D3D mindset integrally involves paying attention to the expectancy we bring to our actions and interactions.
This, as Schein notes above, requires some discipline and practice.
However, the alternative option of remaining unaware of our expectancies doesn’t eliminate them, it simply means our expectations of our colleagues are likely to reduce, rather than enhance, their ability to contribute to shaping the organisation’s future.
Questions for reflection
What evidence do you see that managers have mastered expectancy a half-century on from Livingston’s 1969 HBR article?
How much attention do influential individuals in your organisation pay to expectancy in their actions and interactions?
How much do you pay attention to your expectancies of others — both in your work and your life outside work?
J. Sterling Livingston (1916 – 2010) was a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School for 25 years and published the “HBR Classic” Pygmalion in Management in the July-August 1969 issue of HBR. The quoted section appears on p12 of 12.
Pygmalion was a methodological Greek sculptor who carved a statue of his ideal woman, Galatea, falling in love so much with his creation that she came to life.
Ibid (Pygmalion in Management) p3 of 12. Note that the article currently on the HBR website is a revised version from 2003. You can download the 12 page 1988 reprint of the 1969 original here.
Ibid (Pygmalion in Management) p3 of 12.
Ibid (Pygmalion in Management) p4 of 12.
Ibid (Pygmalion in Management) p5 of 12.
Ibid (Pygmalion in Management) p6 of 12.
Ibid (Pygmalion in Management) p9 of 12. The research The Socialization of Managers: Effects of Expectations on Performance was conducted at AT &T by David E. Berlew and Douglas T. Hall, and published in Administrative Science Quarterly, September 1966, p221.
Ibid (Pygmalion in Management) p10 of 12.
Joan was part of the organisational learning team following the 1995 acquisition of Peter Senge’s consulting firm Innovation Associates (IA) by Arthur D. Little (ADL). I had been working for ADL’s European open innovation lab Cambridge Consultants since 1983, and joined ADL and Joan with the IA acquisition.
Intentional Revolutions (1996)
Ibid Intentional Revolutions p143.
Ibid Intentional Revolutions p144.
Ibid Intentional Revolutions p145.
Ibid Intentional Revolutions p146.
Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling Berrett-Koehler (2013) p50.
I describe the 2D3D mindset in more detail in this previous article. There’s also a six-minute video describing the 2D3D mindset here.