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The Pygmalion Effect: Transforming Your Company Culture

Posted By David Layman, Friday, October 28, 2016

You probably know the story of Pygmalion; or if not, then perhaps the musical My Fair Lady. In the story, the haughty professor Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can transform the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a lady who can pass for a duchess.

The play and musical are more or less based on story from Greek mythology. Pygmalion, a sculptor, creates a marble statue of a woman so beautiful that he falls in love with it and it comes to life.

That the story has been a popular one for thousands of years illustrates how we as humans are intrigued with the idea of using our influence in one way or another to create the ideal.

How does this relate to workplace and culture? In much the same way, many business leaders understand that an environment where employees are happy and satisfied, and relate to the goals and vision of the company they work for, can thrive and help transform a business into a vibrant, productive and profitable organization.

These enlightened leaders therefore strive to sculpt the perfect company culture to bring their organization to life. And much of this comes down to how employers treat their employees.

As Eliza Doolittle explains: “You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated.” 

The Pygmalion Effect

Studies in education in the 1960s conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson showed that if teachers expected superior performance from students, then their performance improved. It also concluded that expectations could either positively or negatively affect performance, based on others’ expectations, and that reality could actually be impacted, creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

The results of this study have been called the Pygmalion effect, or the Rosenthal effect, in which higher expectations lead to an increase in performance

This happens much the same way in the workplace –higher expectations from an employer often results in higher success and optimal results. By extension, creating a workplace culture in which employees are encouraged and expected to be successful produces an environment where employees are successful.

By the way, the opposite is also true. Low expectations bring about low performance. (This is called The Golem Effect).

Tony Hsieh: Modern Pygmalion

In the past several years, you can’t read about workplace culture without hearing about Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. Hsieh has created an amazing, if unconventional, company culture using techniques that many, if not most, find quite radical.

A few years back, Hsieh instituted the use of “Holacracy” at Zappos, in which titles and managers are eliminated and power is distributed to everyone in the company. Zappos employees were informed of the change, and were given the option to leave with three months severance pay if they didn’t want to adapt to the new company structure.

You could say that he was chiseling away the marble in order to create the sculpture, or the type of company, that was his ideal.

While radical, few can argue with the results and success he has achieved.

USMotivation President Tina Weede recently visited the Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas.

“What Tony Hsieh has been able to create along with his 1,500 associates is amazing and it’s wonderful to see because it’s a very solid culture – very individualized but very unique common culture,” she said. “What they defined as their core values, why they work there, the culture that they’ve created is very vibrant. Some people would look at it and say, ‘wow, that’s just a really crazy culture – that would be so much fun.’ It looks like it’s just a fun place.

Weede said what is remarkable about the company is that all the employees there “march in the same direction,” but it all comes down to having a very detailed plan in place.

“I think that is what we learned with RPI – you cannot have a culture based on core values, based on mutual respect, on recognition if you don’t follow a plan and you have to follow it each and every time,” she said. “And when I look at what Tony Hsieh has created, it’s an environment that looks like a lot of fun – their customers love it. They have such a great relationship with their customers. And really, that’s their purpose and that’s their goal – they come to work every day for that reason.”  

Creating a Cultural Work of Art

In order to create an ideal work culture depends first on the vision, planning and hard work of leadership. Leaders have to create an atmosphere where employees are expected to do their best work. And employees have to believe in the vision. Recognition of each employee’s inherent skills and abilities will result in more engagement.

The difference in creating a great workplace culture is really in how employees are treated. Make a plan for an ideal culture and it will come to life.

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