On Leadership and the Pygmalion Effect
I had the opportunity to address the assembled clinical and managerial leadership of Dialysis Clinic, Inc., at the annual meeting this past fall on the role of leadership in achieving high-quality care. Among other things I said:
“Fourth, we need to realize that high quality medical care cannot be achieved by force or from afar—be it Nashville, Washington, or your state capital. Trying to force quality is like pushing cooked spaghetti—it simply does not work. At the risk of straining my metaphor, high quality medical care can only be achieved by pulling people forward to do more than they thought they were capable of doing.”
While I am convinced this statement is both true and provable, there is a conflicting school of thought which implies that I have to be delusional for this to work.
In 1964 a psychologist named Robert Rosenthal administered an IQ test to students at an elementary school near San Francisco. Teachers were told the test identified a number of students with high potential for academic achievement, and over the next year, these “bloomers” improved their IQ scores by 27 points. The only problem? Students were chosen at random without regard to their actual test scores. The study evoked considerable controversy, but Rosenthal, who coined the observation the Pygmalion effect, says “the bottom line is that if we expect certain behaviors from people we treat them differently—and that treatment is likely to affect their behavior.”
So far, so good, but what is the fly in the ointment? In this and in every other experimental study done since, the Pygmalion effect is seen only if the subjects were deceived. In other words, the leader’s subconscious expectations had to be manipulated.
However, there is good evidence that the leader’s expectations do matter and have a profound effect on observed results. After years of study, Prof. Rosenthal has determined that the effect of expectations on results is based on non-verbal communications.
“Eventually he proposed four key factors that could help explain how teachers’ expectations influence students. They boil down to climate (warm and friendly behavior), input (the tendency for teachers to devote more energy to their special students), output (the way teachers call on those students more often for answers) and feedback (giving generally more helpful responses to the students for whom teachers have the highest hopes).
So how might teachers or other leaders communicate these high expectations? What are their facial expressions, vocal tones and gestures like in these interactions? Alas, Rosenthal’s research hasn’t answered these questions, and there isn’t much guidance from other nonverbal communication authorities.
Paul Ekman, a leading expert in the field who has never collaborated with Rosenthal, says that as a general rule, people communicate these high hopes via the degree to which they physically show their attentiveness. A fixed gaze and raised eyebrows conveys a different message than a wandering gaze and bored expression. In other words, it’s all a matter of emotional investment and focus. These behaviors are usually instinctive, however. So the question remains: Can they be effectively taught?”
Said another way, my belief that people can be pulled forward to achieve more than they thought they could is not an intellectual proposition so much as it is a position toward life that reflects my personality, my upbringing, and my approach to people. After more than 40 years’ experience, I may be able to share my perspective and even articulate some of the principles, but putting into action requires emotional, frequently unconscious, commitment, which cannot be taught.
Most leadership development programs focus on tools and techniques designed to produce motivation and many companies expend great sums of money on the effort, but they do not consistently produce better leaders. I suspect they do produce better managers, because the tool kits will help produce a more positive work environment. But if leadership is “getting someone to do something they weren’t planning to do already,” it is going to take more. Perhaps we would get more results if we helped people examine their innermost convictions. But perhaps as leaders, we also need more compassion for those we are trying to induce to lead.
Ancient Greek tragedies were written to create an emotion of fear in the audience, but the best of them evoked compassion for the misfortunes of the hero. Often, the fall was provoked by a tragic flaw—a weakness of character or an excess of virtue—often related to hubris. In our modern era, being in a leadership position exposes us to all of these forces. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be doing very well in the compassion arena, which may be why the quality of leadership is often so unsatisfactory.
We are trying to address these issues by using outside consultants to help our leaders gain deeper insights into their assumptions, both spoken and unspoken, but also to celebrate the successes. The non-verbal cues to make the Pygmalion effect work may not be teachable, but I remain optimistic that people want to learn and improve. It will be awhile before we know if this works, but almost everything important takes a lot of time and effort. Stay tuned.
14 February 2017
 Ellison K. Being Honest About the Pygmalion Effect. Discover, December 2015. Posted online 29 October 2015 at http://discovermagazine.com/2015/dec/14-great-expectations. Accessed 30 January 2017.
 Stiffler B. Aristotle and the Nature of Tragedy. http://www.billstifler.org/HUM2130/files/4D-011-Aristotle.htm. Accessed 14 February 2017.
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