Column by Dr YRK Reddy in HRD Newsletter


“…. The difference between a lady and the flower girl is not how she behaves but how she is treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins as he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will, but I know I can always be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

Eliza Dolittle, in George Bernard Shaw`s “Pygmalion”.

Self-fulfilling prophecy had its origins in the mythological story of a Prince from Cyprus named Pygmalion who sculpted a beautiful woman in ivory that bewitched him so much that he wanted it to come alive. He prayed so hard that a boon was granted and the ivory creation, he named Galatea, became human to live as his mate forever. The relevance of the self-fulfilling prophecy was given to the management world through the works of the sociologist – Robert Merton of Columbia University who stated; “a false definition of the situation will result in behaviors that will make the original false definition true”.

Since then we had rediscovered the importance of the self-fulfilling prophecies by applying to situations in society, industry, class-rooms and animal experiments. Those that were caricatured as “dull” (while the opposite may have been correct) turned out to be slow, dull or non-performing while the opposite happened for those who were categorized as “bright”. I had the privilege of overseeing a real life situation, some 20 years ago.

In a new Cement Plant located at a faction-ridden location, managers, all of whom came from a different cultural background treated the local workers as rude, militant, untrainable, disobedient, abusive and intransigent. Even routine technical problems were written down as due to workers. There was one exception to this general situation. A young Engineer in charge of one of the sections was in love with technology so much that he was oblivious to the cultural differences and treated all workers as high performers. He did not choose to define the “situation” or judge people. He communicated with all, coached all, trained all, discussed about the several technical glitches. In a short time, this unit formed its own quality circle and had all the virtues of a self-managed team including least absenteeism and highest productivity. Workers made several innovative suggestions and experiments that were outstanding in the industry. An island in the midst of deep divide of performing managers and “non-performing, troublesome, incompetent, militant workers”. This was sheer happenstance. A “jungle me mangal”. Not a planned HR strategy for the entire plant.

Has the HR function reckoned the Pygmalion into its practice? At the abstract level, yes. For companies have been teaching managers to treat employees fairly, motivate them, give them positive strokes, coach them, develop them. They are also trumpeting as to how “strategic” human resource are, giving people prime place in mission statements and corporate credos. That they are intellectual assets; that without motivated employees companies cannot compete; that customers cannot be delighted by demotivated employees; that one must do all things possible to attract and retain the best of talent.

Companies have also started several methods to keep them happy like the mass picnics, annual parties, sports and games competitions, company recognition schemes, excellence awards etc. These may create the ambience for satisfaction but do they set standards of high expectations that is essential for the Pygmalion to take place?. I reckon, three challenges for companies and the HR function in using the Pygmalion effect to their advantage, if they choose to.

Firstly, Though thinking of employees as achievers probably requires a set of highly competent managers who can set high standards and are able to evoke the respect required to meet those expectations. Do we have such managers? Though, there is not much evidence and research about the impact of the sources of such expectations, it is obvious that we will meet the standards of those who we respect or fear or both.

A classic case is that of a horse Clever Hans (See Accel-Team’s, Employee Motivation, which is the inspiration for this article). It started answering, to the dismay of the German owner himself, questions posed to it by visitors by nodding its head or tapping by its front hoofs. It was eventually revealed by researchers that the horse was very observant and could notice the forward inclination of a questioner and start tapping and stop when he straightens up. It would notice dilation in nostrils, the twitches in the face, raising of eyebrows of the questioners, which proved to be cues for it to start and stop answering. The horse could not answer if the questioner was not in front of it or if the questioner himself had no answer. The visitors were amazed not knowing that they were actually providing the answers to the horse – defined the situation wrongly and fulfilled their own prophecies. The relevant question here is would the horse have behaved the same way if the questioner was another animal like a donkey or a cat? Obviously the horse would not be bothered with a lesser being than it is! The idea here is that employees need individual attention as well as a boss who is respected and the employees find it worthwhile to make an effort for.

The second challenge is that competent managers need to appraise their employees that would grade/rank them and reward them, which in turn signals the winners and the losers. The losers have to be told that they are so at least for that year and yet create an expectation that they can actually do as well as those in the top quartile. If the employees have to be fitted to a bell-shaped curve, managers will be forced to rate some as poor. They can get away with positive talk one year but can they repeat it the next and the third year? What happens if an employee is rated in the bottom quartile consecutively? No amount of pep talk may help create an expectancy that is worthwhile for the employee to meet.

The third challenge is that managers are required to demonstrate this pep talk with a show of trust and expectancy by assigning all employees with challenging tasks. Managers tend to use those who are the declared “achievers” more and more than the bottom quartile. Further, and this is very important, research has shown that managers feel good when they deal with those who are considered high achievers (even if they actually are not). Managers tend to spend more time with them, share more information, and generally communicate better with them. Consequently, it becomes a vicious circle of low expectancy, lower interaction, role under-load, low performance and low self-esteem leading to a generalized low expectation from the individual concerned from all members in the team.

Does the Pygmalion effect work on all people the same way? Though we do not yet have much research evidence, one suspects that it does not. If there is a person with high achievement motivation, a low expectancy syndrome may actually trigger inspired work, a sublimation process that finds better solutions. If this were not so, we will have no Mahatma Gandhis fighting the apartheid in Durban. Nor a Beethoven, an Annadurai, a Babu Jagjivan Ram or even an Abdul Kalam who all may have gone through a distressing social expectancy in their social milieu for one reason or the other.

December, 2002 Issue

Copyright 2000 Yaga Consulting Pvt. Ltd.