A team does it as well as you do, and the team believes they can do it.

This idea is known as “the self-fulfilling prophecy.” When you think the team will perform well, in some strange and magical way they do. And similarly, when you think they won’t work well, they don’t.

There is enough experimental data to suggest that the self-fulfilling prophecy is true. An unusual experiment in 1911 concerned a highly intelligent horse named Hans. This horse was reputed to be able to add, multiply, subtract, and divide by touching the answer with its hooves. The extraordinary thing was that he could do this without his trainer being present. All it took was someone to ask the questions.

In research, it was found that when the interrogator knew the answer, he or she conveyed several very subtle body language cues to Hans, such as the raising of an eyebrow or the flaring of the nostrils. Hans simply picked up these clues and continued to tap until he arrived at the required answer. The interrogator expected an answer, and Hans agreed.

Similarly, an experiment was carried out in a British school on the performance of a new class of students. At the beginning of the year, each student was given a grade, ranging from “excellent prospect” to “unlikely to do well”. These were totally arbitrary ratings and did not reflect how well the students had previously performed. However, these grades were given to teachers. At the end of the year, the experimenters compared the students’ performance with the grades. Despite his actual abilities, there was an astonishingly high correlation between performance and grades. It seems that people are performing as well as we expect.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is also known as the Pygmalion Effect. This comes from a story by Ovid about Pygmalion, a sculptor and prince of Cyprus, who created an ivory statue of his ideal woman. The result he called Galatea was so beautiful that she immediately fell in love with it. He begged the goddess Aphrodite to bring the statue to life and make it her own. Aphrodite granted Pygmalion her wish, the statue came to life, and the couple married and lived happily ever after.

The story was also the basis for George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” which later became the musical “My Fair Lady.” In Shaw’s play, Professor Henry Higgins claims that he can take a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, and make her a duchess. But, as Eliza herself points out to Higgins’ friend Pickering, it is not what she learns or does that determines whether she will become a duchess, but how she is treated.

“You see, really and truly, apart from the things that anyone can pick up (the right way to dress and talk, etc.), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated. I will always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me like a flower girl, and always will, but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me like a lady, and always will “.

The implication of the Pygmalion effect for leaders and managers is enormous. It means that the performance of your team depends less on them than on you. The return you get from people is neither more nor less than you expect: which means you should always expect the best. As Goethe said, “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become what he can and should be.”


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