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Pygmalion effect: find out what it is and how it can affect your company

If you are a movie buff, or if you are old enough, you may have watched the musical movie by George Cukor, My Fair Lady. If you have seen it, then you may remember that the phonetics teacher, Henry Higgins, played by Rex Harrison – and as a consequence of a bet-, ends up being in charge of the education of the florist Eliza Doolittle, played by Audrey Hepburn. Absolutely convinced that his teachings will reshape the florist’s habits -she is a bit rough around the edges – the phonetician is confident he will succeed in making her pass for a lady from high society.

We won’t tell you anything else, in case you haven’t seen the ending. The film is a classic of its genre, and a cinematographic version of the theatre play written in 1913 by George Bernard Shaw, called Pygmalion. The play is based in turn on the Myth of Pygmalion, originary of the Cypriot culture.

For several years, Pygmalion, the King of Cyprus, looked for a woman to marry her, with a single condition: she had to be the perfect woman (teeny-weeny condition, Pygmalion, not exigent at all…)

But of course, the king doesn’t find such perfect being among human women, so he starts recreating it by making sculptures of women. Finally, he falls in love with one of them, Galatea, treating the sculpture as if it was a real woman. The myth says that Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, intervenes to turn Galatea into a real woman, to reward the unflagging longing of the King to be in possession of such perfection. Pygmalion yearned so much to find the perfect woman, that after insisting unceasingly, he finally gets her (with divine intervention, that is).

Another cultural manifestation of the myth of Pygmalion can be found in the popular tale called Pinocchio, written by the Italian Carlo Collodi in 1882, and later adapted to the big screen by Disney.

The story of Pinocchio holds some similarities with that of the Cypriot King. It is about a carpenter named Geppetto, who wants to have a child. Since for him it is impossible to have a kid by any other means, he creates a puppet in the image of a little boy, and he calls it Pinocchio. Such is Geppetto’s longing for a child that the puppet finally comes to life, this time thanks to the intervention of a fairy.

But apart from mythology and fiction, the Pygmalion effect is very much related with our day-to-day lives.

The Pygmalion effect is known as the ability to influence people depending on what is expected from them. We could also say it could be some sort of subgenre inside self-fulfilling prophecies. If a person is expected to behave in a certain way and is treated accordingly, the person will end up behaving in that expected way. In the academic field, for example, if a student is treated as if they were more intelligent and therefore, they are more encouraged and motivated by the people in their environment, it won’t matter if they really are intelligent or not; in the end, they will get better results.

In the work environment, the Pygmalion Effect can have very positive implications. But be careful, you can also have negative ones.

For example, if an employee receives frequent recognition from his boss, they are likely to feel stimulated and will tend to achieve an even better performance. If, on the contrary, they are continuously questioned and their work is ruthlessly criticized, they will probably fall into demotivation and the quality of their work will diminish. For both good and bad, the treatment they receive will end up determining the outcome.

Everybody has prejudices, and so do bosses. All managers have a picture formed about each of the members in their team, and they usually treat them accordingly. It may have little to do with reality, but it may end up becoming a fact.

If you are the boss, think about it. Most probably, the negative idea that you have of some of your employees doesn’t correspond with reality. Do you really want them to end up being like your prejudices are making you see them? That won’t be any good for people or for your company.

However, your business can benefit from the positive side of the Pygmalion effect. Here we got some ways:

– Praise the work of your employees
If you don’t have the habit, with some practice you will see that recognizing a well done job not only costs nothing at all, but it is also a very pleasant moment, both for you and your people. In addition, doing so will make them feel more motivated and their work will be better. Full Pygmalion effect.

– Use positive language
On many occasions, the way things are communicated can have a greater effect than the message itself. Eliminate words such as “failure” or “disappointment” from your vocabulary and use more motivating sentences such as “I’m sure you’ll get it” or “I believe in you”.

– Actually believe in your people
You already know it. Your prejudices can determine real behaviors. Therefore, it is best that you make an effort to turn your opinion about your workers into the best possible. The more you believe in them and the better you convey your trust in them, the easier it will be for them to meet your expectations.

– Make constructive criticism
Sometimes it is necessary to point out some deficiencies or shortcomings, but this doesn’t mean filling the message with negative connotations. Constructive criticism doesn’t sound like reprobation and it achieves a much more effective result.

Despite being based on the myth of Pygmalion, professor Higgins’ arrogant and misogynistic ways in My Fair Lady might not have been the best tactic, so you shouldn’t take it as an example. Apart from that, it is a film, and movies are works of fiction after all. In real life, it is likely that Eliza wouldn’t tolerate the phonetician’s despotic attitude and her educational plan would have ended up failing. Real life is not a musical or a romantic movie, because it is ruled by different mechanisms. So, be kind to your people. Both them and your company will thank you.

“Treat a human being as they are, and they will remain the same. Treat them as what they can become, and they will become what they can become. ” -Blaise Pascal, French philosopher and mathematician.