The Pygmalion Effect: success is a self-fulfilling prophecy

We know—and have probably experienced firsthand—that people don’t always do what we like them to do. We all struggle to get our ideas across. And that’s because successful execution is much harder than many of us realize. And failure doesn’t come so much because of the quality of the idea, but because of age-old, programmed human behavior. It turns out that human nature kills big ideas. Let’s take a look at one of the 8 villains on the execution road: The Pygmalion Effect.

Consider a 15-week army course where 105 soldiers were assigned to one of 4 instructors. A few days before the start of the program, each instructor was briefed, including the following message:

We have compiled much data on the trainees including psychological test scores, sociometric evaluations, grades in previous courses, and ratings by previous commanders. Based on this information, we have predicted the command potential (CP) of each soldier. …Based on CP scores, we have designated each trainee as having either a high, regular or unknown CP, the latter due to incomplete records. When we’re not sure, we don’t guess. Soldiers of all 3 CP levels have been divided equally among the 4 training classes.

Each instructor was given their list of trainees (one-third of whom had a high CP, one-third a regular CP, and the remainder an unknown CP). They were then asked to copy each trainee’s command potential into their personal records and learn the names and scores before they arrived.

It’s important to know that, at the time, these 4 instructors didn’t know that the command potential classification—the performance score on the list they received—was completely random. In other words, the soldier listed as having the highest CP could very well be the worst soldier in the group.

After 16 weeks, at the end of the combat course, the performance of the 105 soldiers was tested in 4 different areas. One of these performance evaluations, for example, was their proficiency in the use of weapons they had been trained to master.

The outcome? Those soldiers who got marked with a high command potential significantly outperformed their classmates in all 4 subjects. Those with an average CP scored the lowest. The third group—those with an unknown performance potential—ended up in the middle. The difference in performance between the best and the worst group was 15 percent.

After detailed analysis, it showed that the experimentally induced expectations—the fake command potential scores—explained all most three-quarters of the variance in performance. In other words, by making a superior believe a subordinate has the ability to be a great performer, the actual performance increases. And the effect isn’t marginal. It’s a whopping 2 digit figure!

Strange, don’t you think? When we believe a team member has the ability to be a great performer, our belief becomes reality. The performance expectation we have for our team members is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the end, to succeed as a strategist, we need a thorough understanding of what makes people tick. And that’s on top of industry dynamics, customer behaviors and financial savyiness. We need to have a deep understanding of how people process information and take decisions, what makes them care about an idea, and what gives them the energy to take action. And when we do, our idea has all it needs to succeed.

About the author: Jeroen De Flander is one of the world’s most influential thinkers on strategy execution and a highly regarded keynote speaker. He has shared the stage with prominent strategists like Michael Porter and reached out to 21,000+ leaders in 30+ countries. His first book Strategy Execution Heroes reached the Amazon bestseller list in 5 countries and was nominated for Management Book of the Year 2012 in the Netherlands.