Posted: 26 May 2022

Looking to improve leadership and performance in your team? Take a look at the latest article from our Learning Team as they explain what are the Pygmalion and Golem effects and by understanding it how you, as a manager, can use it to improve employee performance.

Overview of the Pygmalion and Golem effect

Although many people have heard of the Pygmalion effect, not many are aware of its importance in relation to management. The same may be said of the Golem effect; essentially, they are two sides of the same coin.

The Pygmalion effect as we know it today, stems from the Greek poet Ovid. He wrote of a sculptor named Pygmalion, who carved a statue of a beautiful woman that he fell so in love with, it came to life. Although this story is mythological, the message relating to the workplace of today is understanding that your positive belief in, or high level of expectations of, someone can positively influence their performance. It is the expectation of someone else that directly impacts the individual, not internal thoughts of themselves. If the behaviour were dependent on their own expectations this would be the Galatea effect, which we will be looking into in future publications.

Contrary to the Pygmalion effect, the Golem effect refers to the negative effects of leaders having low expectations of an individual. It was Babad, Inbar and Rosenthal that first coined the term the ‘Golem effect’ in their 1982 research as they stated, it ‘represent(s) the concerns of social scientists and educators, which are focused on the negative effects of self-fulfilling prophecies’. As with the Pygmalion effect, it is the external expectation that affects the individual’s performance, in the case of the Golem effect low expectations, or lack of belief, can negatively affect the individual’s performance.

These effects in practice

Numerous studies have been conducted highlighting that a manager’s expectations of employees can have a vast impact on their productivity, motivation and performance within the team. But what does this look like in practice?

An individual who is perceived to be a low performer may be treated in a negative manner, such as stricter deadlines, only trusted to complete routine/dull tasks, monitored more closely and not asked for their input on wider business issues. Once a low performer recognises that they are perceived in this manner, they may begin to ‘live down to expectations’, as their intrinsic motivation has already been quashed by the lack of the same opportunities provided to those deemed to be high performers. Conversely, a manager who perceives an individual as a high performer will often treat them in a positive manner, such as encouraging personal growth, providing them flexibility, being more trusting of them, allowing them to be included in projects that interest them and openly listening to that person’s ideas. Many managers do not realise they are perpetuating behaviours they perceive to be negative by not supporting those individuals in the same way they would those perceived as positive.

Both of these effects are classed as ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’, as a manager’s expectations of these individuals, unintentionally leads to the initially perceived outcome. As unintentional as these passed on effects are, it’s useful to note how much influence a manager can have on individuals, through their treatment based on expectations, and consider what steps may be taken to transform those experiencing the Golem effect to those experiencing the Pygmalion effect.