Blooming Employees…the Pygmalion effect at the front line

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HALM
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

A self-fulfilling prophecy. That is what it is popularly referred to. It is simply defined as “a prediction that causes itself to come true.” There are generally two kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies. There are the self-imposed prophecies which, as the name denotes, we impose on ourselves. We are about to undertake an action and we begin to visualize a certain outcome—and, lo and behold, that is exactly what happens. Then there are the other-imposed prophecies. These are when others expect a certain level or type of performance from us and then we do exactly what those others expect.

The concept is also known as Pygmalion Effect, an obvious reference to Pygmalion, the character in the poem Metamorphoses by the Greek poet Ovid. The story in the poem is about a sculptor who falls in love with one of its own creations, an ivory statue. After pestering the gods with prayers for a wife exactly like his creation, his prayers were granted. An expectation fulfilled is therefore referred to as the Pygmalion Effect.

The idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy is not just a feel good concept that someone cooked up from nowhere. It actually has solid scientific basis. Distinguished German-born, American psychologist Robert Rosenthal is a man credited with much of the work on this idea. This is why the idea is also sometimes referred to as the Rosenthal Effect.

There are several examples or facets to this idea. First of all, there is what is referred to “Experimenter-Expectancy Effects”. It is known by other names such as the Observer-Expectancy Effect, Expectancy Bias, Observer Effect, or Experimenter Effect. This is the influence that a researcher can have on the outcome of an experiment. By bringing a bias into the experiment, researchers have been known to influence the actions of the participants in the experiment.

It is evident that Rosenthal’s greatest work was in the 1963 work done in a California elementary school. The objective of that study was to test the effect of teacher expectations on the performance of students. Rosenthal, together with the principal of the elementary school, Lenore F. Jacobson, designed a test for students at the beginning of their studies. After the exams, the researchers selected the students they said proved to have the greatest potential to succeed during their stay in the school. “Academic bloomers”, that is what they termed those so-called brilliant students.

However, unknown to the teachers, the selection of the academic bloomers has nothing to do with the exams they took. The researchers selected the students randomly. The research hypothesised that the expectation of excellence in the academic bloomers group was going to affect the performance of group. During the period of the study, the researchers took note of the interactions between teachers and the individuals in the “academic bloomers” group and those in the control group.

At the end of the study, the IQs of the students were tested. The results were as expected. Individuals in the “academic bloomers” group outperformed their colleagues in the control group. It was even more interesting when the study proved that the younger the children, the better the academic group outdid their colleagues.

The explanation for the discrepancy in the performance of the two groups was noticed in the quality of interactions each group had with their teachers. It was reported that when it came to dealing with those that were expected to perform well, teachers gave them much more personal interactions. When these students performed, their teachers gave them better feedback. Their teachers were more patient with them, even to the point of explaining away their mistakes and using their mistakes as opportunities to teach them more. Those expected to perform well were also more likely to be given more approval, and kind gestures, such as nods and smiling when they performed.

Outside of the classroom and outside of working with students, the Pygmalion Effect has also been found to be credible. Dov Eden, a professor of Organisational Psychology, affiliated with Tel Aviv University in Israel, undertook a similar study with the Israeli Defense Forces. Eden also selected trainee soldiers at random and told their platoon leaders that certain individuals were “high potentials”. True to expectations, those who were expected to excel in activities such as handling of weapons, combat tactics, map reading and standard operating procedures actually excelled. Those expected to do well outperformed their colleagues for whom much was not expected.

Together with other studies done in several fields, it is now known that the expectation of superiors or significant people in the lives of individuals has a clear effect on the performance of those individuals. It is one thing for individuals to have self-fulfilling prophecies and it is another thing for those whose word hold sway over others to have expectations of those others.

Not surprisingly, the Pygmalion Effect has also been found to exist in the world of business. One area of a business’ operations, where there is a need for constant excellent performance, is the front line. Those whose jobs it is to deal with customers must always be on top of their game if they are to win the hearts and purses of their customers. The fortune of the organisation depends on how well these individuals perform.

If the results of experiments such as Rosenthal’s and those of many others are to be believed, then one can confidently deduce that the expectations and subsequently behaviour of supervisors are inextricably linked to the performance of front line. From the preceding statement, it is clear that the first thing every business needs to find out is the level of expectations employees, especially new employees, have of themselves. During the interview session or sessions and during subsequent orientation activities and processes, it is important that new employees are given the “permission” to have high expectations of themselves.

I vividly recall one of the great lessons I was given by my former Managing Director, who has since gone to be with his Maker. It was during an orientation training for new staff. He walked into the opening session and asked a single question of all new employees. The question was deceptively simple but very loaded.

“Where do you see yourselves in this Bank in the next ten years?”

There were a few nervous answers from the new staff. Answers ranging from “becoming the best on a particular schedule” all through to “heading particular departments”. The look on my MD face, as he stared on the floor, was enough to tell me that he was disappointed in the answers he was hearing.

When the answers were no more forthcoming, he lifted up his head and said, “That was very disappointing. So in the next ten years, none of you wants to be the MD of this bank?” Evidently, he had high expectations for the new employees but their expectations were more measured.

Beyond the expectations of the individual employees are the expectations of their supervisors. Just as my Managing Director had expectations of our new employees, so should all managers have of new employees. This is important because if managers have a certain expectation of those front line staff, the Pygmalion Effect says those expectations would become reality. If supervisors believe those at the front line are disrespectful, lazy and unproductive employees, guess what? That is exactly what they are going to get— disrespectful, lazy and unproductive employees.

In dealing with the Rosenthal Effect with regards with front line employees, it is important that managers pay particular attention to new employees. The very first few days, weeks or months of the employee’s life in the organisation are of utmost importance. It is at the nascent stage of the employee’s development that expectations are set. It is during this period that, if care is not taken, a potentially-great employee can be mis-labelled and turned into a below-average performer.

The thing to know about expectations is that there is nothing like no expectation because a “no expectation” is actually an expectation. And like every other expectation, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Managers must know this and therefore have excellent expectations for those they influence.

There is also an important task for heads of administration and human resources when it comes to dealing with the Pygmalion effect at the workplace. In placing new hires within the organisation, it is helpful to ensure that new employees are given to great supervisors to break them into the organisation. Giving new employees to managers or supervisors who are not among the best will lead to vicious cycle. Underperforming managers with low expectations of themselves will have low expectations of the new employees and the Pygmalion Effect will definitely kick in.

In a hyper-competitive business environment, characterised by numerous choices for customers, it makes sense if no stone is left unturned when it comes to customer service. Customer-facing employees must be given all the support they need to offer excellent customer service on a daily basis. As evident from the ongoing discussion, one of the best supports an organisation can give its frontline employees is to have positive expectations of them. It is by so doing that these employees bloom into great employees.

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