By Felicity Doddato
The Pygmalion effect is a phenomenon in which our expectations affect our treatment of others. In many cases, when someone is expected to do well, they will often rise to meet this expectation—and vice versa.
“Pygmalion” is used to refer specifically to positive stereotypes: if you think someone has certain traits (intelligence, leadership ability, etc.), then you’ll act accordingly when interacting with them—which may cause them to exhibit those qualities more than they otherwise would. This same phenomenon can also be applied to negative stereotypes, which is where problems may start to arise. In this article, we will discuss how the Pygmalion effect works, and how it can contribute to systemic inequality in the workplace.
Systemic inequality can be persistent within organizations.
The Pygmalion effect acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you expect people will perform well or poorly, they will likely do just that. The Pygmalion effect also acts as an expectancy bias, meaning we make assumptions about others based on the limited information we have. In this case, our own biases can lead us to form opinions about other people. We then act in ways that confirm those biases for ourselves and others around us.
And it’s not because we have bad co-workers.
We are all susceptible to the Pygmalion effect, and unconscious bias can sneak up on all of us at any time. We inevitably develop expectations of both ourselves and the people around us. And when our expectations don’t align properly with reality, it creates an environment where inequality thrives.
So how does the Pygmalion effect contribute to systemic inequality?
When those in power expect their subordinates to perform poorly, they unintentionally reinforce the status quo by providing these individuals with less opportunities for development and setting lower goals and standards to meet compared to others who have achieved higher levels of success. This creates an environment where people underperform because they’re told to by their superiors who believe they are less capable—creating a continuous loop of unconscious bias and underperformance.
When we work to increase our awareness of the Pygmalion effect, we can reduce systemic inequality and increase employee satisfaction, performance, and retention. The Pygmalion effect is a powerful force, and understanding it’s benefits and risk-factors can help increase motivation and job performance within the workplace.
It is imperative that organizations become aware of the Pygmalion effect and begin to recognize any unconscious biases they may be acting on. By providing employees with equal opportunities and expectations, regardless of any previous biases, individuals will be more likely to exceed these expectations, meet goals, and overperform in areas they were once thought to be underqualified for, all because they were treated as capable and competent.
Raising awareness of the Pygmalion effect within the workplace is the first step to not only positively impacting an organization’s overall performance but improving the employee’s experience and opportunities as well. It’s imperative organizations use the insights of its employees as a guide for making changes both within their workplace, as well as within the daily interactions between colleagues. Remember, if we want our efforts to make a difference, they have to be part of an ongoing process—not just a one-time thing!