Unlocking Potential with the Pygmalion Effect

Whether you think you can, or you think you can't— you're right.

Henry Ford
[3-min read]

A Lesson in Belief

Every big step I’ve taken in life came with help from mentors — my dad, a kind teacher, a business leader, a skilled friend, or a coach.

There were two key elements in our interactions that helped me succeed:

  1. They pushed me to go beyond what I thought I could do.

  2. They believed in me, which in turn helped me believe in myself.

Here’s a story to illustrate this:

Once, after rising quickly through the ranks at work, things changed.

My team got a new boss who didn’t see my potential. He told me to lower my ambitions about reaching the top.

I faced a choice: stay and wait for a better chance or leave and start fresh somewhere else.

Fortunately, I had a mentor, a top executive, who made my decision clear.

His faith in me kept me going even when I felt discouraged. He saw my value to the company and encouraged me to improve in my personal life as well.

He helped me get ready for a bigger job at the company. He also challenged me to get fit.

That year turned out to be pivotal. With his encouragement and support, I lost more than 100 lbs and ran two half marathons.

I was given the opportunity to lead a big global project. In fact, it later opened the door to a C-suite role.

I didn’t know it then, but a powerful psychological phenomenon was at play. It’s called the Pygmalion Effect.

Understanding the Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect comes from an old Greek myth.

A sculptor named Pygmalion made a statue so beautiful he fell in love with it. The goddess Aphrodite brought the statue to life, turning his vision into reality.

Just like in the myth, what we believe can become our reality.

In psychology, this effect means if you expect more, you’re likely to perform better. And it’s true even if those higher expectations come from someone else.

A landmark study by Rosenthal and Jacobson in 1968 proved this. They told teachers some students were likely to be high achievers.

In fact, these students were actually chosen at random.

But guess what? Those students did get better grades. All because their teachers believed they would.

It shows how powerful our beliefs can be—they can actually change our reality.

The Pygmalion Effect is an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I created a cheat sheet on this topic that gives you some visuals.

Applying the Pygmalion Effect

Let’s explore how to apply this concept in your life and leadership.

For Personal Development:

  1. Set Higher Goals: Aim for ambitious yet realistic targets. By setting higher goals, you push your limits and expand your capabilities.

  2. Positive Self-Talk: Replace doubts with positive affirmations. Telling yourself you can succeed reinforces your confidence and ability to achieve your goals.

  3. Visualize Success: Imagine achieving your goals. Visualizing success helps create a mental blueprint, making it more achievable.

  4. Seek Feedback: Actively ask for and embrace constructive feedback. Feedback, even if it’s critical, can be a powerful tool for growth when you use it to improve.

  5. Embrace Challenges: View obstacles as opportunities to grow. Facing and overcoming challenges strengthens your resilience and skills.

For Leaders:

  1. Express Confidence in Your Team: Show that you believe in their abilities. When team members know their leader has faith in them, they are more likely to push themselves.

  2. Provide Opportunities for Growth: Give challenging tasks that stretch their abilities. This encourages team members to develop new skills and gain confidence.

  3. Celebrate Achievements: Give recognition for successes, even small wins. Acknowledging and celebrating achievements reinforce the team’s belief in their abilities and encourage continued effort.

  4. Create a Learning Environment: Encourage continual learning and improvement. A learning-focused environment helps team members feel supported in their growth journey.

  5. Personalize Your Approach: Tailor your support to individual team members. Understanding and addressing their unique needs and strengths can significantly boost their performance.

By integrating these practices into your personal and professional life, you can leverage the Pygmalion Effect to achieve greater success.

Making It Work for You

Start by setting a personal stretch goal and approach it with the conviction that you can achieve it. Find a trusted friend, coach, or mentor to challenge and encourage you to go beyond what you think is possible.

As a leader, identify one team member to mentor. Focus on their strengths and potential. Show them you believe in them even if they don’t believe in themselves yet.

Diving Deeper

To delve further into this topic, I recommend The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Change Your World by David Robson.

For a leadership take, check out this Harvard Business Review article: “Pygmalion in Management” by J. Sterling Livingston.

Connecting the Dots

Our beliefs, whether about ourselves or others, can set the stage for what becomes reality.

The Pygmalion Effect is a powerful reminder of the impact of positive expectations.

By harnessing this, you can unlock your full potential and inspire others to do the same.

Until next time, believe in yourself and those around you.