The Pygmalion Effect states that when we raise expectations, performance improves.
However, it is not sufficient to just talk about these higher expectations.
The coach gives a big speech about how “we are going to have high and lofty expectations” and then they turn around and by their actions communicate that they, in fact, have low expectations of these athletes.
This is like a sprinter running the 100 in work boots. The coach wants to raise expectations and elevate the program but then puts a constraint on that elevation happening.
This plays itself out in nuanced ways…
A coach talks about high expectations then proceeds to say things like “you guys are not bought-in”.
They talk high expectations then mico manager every detail of the athlete’s practice/preparation.
They talk higher expectations and when those are not met, they manage behavior negatively and reactively having a condescending tone and attitude towards the athlete, being judgmental, sarcastic, and demeaning.
The coach says one thing then does another.
This doesn’t make sense. “We are raising the expectations here!” then treats them like they can’t be trusted to meet these high expectations.
Pygmalion Effect Research
Trevor Reagan, on his podcast “The Learner Lab”, shared a story of an experiment done by Harvard psychology professor Robert Rosenthal. Rosenthal went into a public school and administered a test to determine who the ‘bloomers’ were. ‘Bloomers’ were defined as those students who have great potential.
The next year they retested all of the same students. Those who were labeled ‘bloomers’ from the previous year’s test raised their score by and an average of 27 points.
Non-bloomers minimally raised their score by 12 points.
Here is the catch… the researcher didn’t even look at the results in year one.
They simply picked several students at random and labeled them ‘bloomers’.
So the researcher randomly picked students and gave them the label ‘bloomer’, told the teachers these are your bloomers, then retested the next year.
The key to the experiment was the researcher witnessed how the teachers treated the ‘bloomers’ vs the other kids. They treated them differently. They were more patient. They spoke to them without judgment or condescension. They ask them questions instead of just hurriedly telling them an answer.
Here is the point. When you treat people like they can, they often prove you right. Conversely, when you treat people like they can’t, they will often prove you right.
Don’t just say you’re going to have high expectations…treat your people like ‘bloomers’ that will meet those expectations.
Give them freedom, collaborate…and talk to them and treat them like you actually expect them to rise to the expectations!
****I am not making the case that there is never a time to challenge an athlete to raise their level of commitment or expectations. We all need coaching. Just do it in a constructive, inspiring way.