The Pygmalion effect in business planning (expect more in your strategy).

If you’ve ever had your tyres pumped up by a coach or boss and then gone on to perform better as a result, you’ve experienced this. The Pygmalion effect, named after a mythical Greek sculptor, is about higher expectations leading to better performance. Telling yourself (or being told) you can do this – run faster, jump higher, sell more, achieve bigger things, shine on the stage – and then using those new expectations / perceptions to drive the heightened level of output. Self-fulfilling prophecies; increasing your self-belief and upping your game accordingly.

Is it real? Studies struggle to prove it, but I think it’s a pretty good heuristic to live by. And I think you’ve probably experienced it yourself when supporters, or naivety, or ego, have bumped your levels of self-belief up, and lo, you rose to the challenge.

This effect has a parasitic twin brother. The Golem effect is where lowering expectations results in lower levels of performance. The teacher or parent that told you that you’d amount to nothing. The boss that didn’t think you could get the deal over the line or the team under control. The negative self talk that you vindicate with cruddy work. 

To wrap it in the motivation meme, “if you think you can, you can, and if you think you can’t, you’re also right.” 

I see a lot of people dancing with the Golem effect in their strategy conversations.

“We’ve never been great at penetrating this market sector, so let’s not expect too much here.”

“The competition is really strong in this area - we don't have what it takes to take more than this share from them.”

“Our clients have never embraced this service, so we won’t put too much pressure on better results this year.” 

These challenges are no doubt real and there may not be actual or easy ways to overcome them, but I do see a lot of default fatalistic attitudes play out far too early and far too deeply in the strategy conversation. Tiredness, defeatedness, no stomach for the mental and physical work needed to overcome the doubts and fears maybe. A tough place to recover from; a tough mindset to grow from.

Go to the other place a moment. Pygmalion planning conversations.

“There’s an opportunity here, and while no doubt it’s above the level we’ve been operating at, I think we’ve got what it takes to smash it.”

“These clients want more from a supplier, and I reckon we can lift to be what they’re looking for; we can go that extra mile and deliver on their expectations.”

“Our people have the talent, discipline and hunger to go 20% better in the next 12-months – we can and will be that leading team.”

Deluded ra-ra Tony Robbins style self-talk with no basis in reality?

Well, I think it certainly will be if you approach it from a Golem perspective.

You'll need to be mindful of your optimism bias – a condition where you’ve been swallowing too much of your own bathwater and have gone a bit Kanye in the head.

And be clear that it - higher performance based on higher expectations - is probably not going to happen without more research, deeper planning and a whole lot of gut-busting effort.

But the idea of asking more of yourself, believing more in yourself and expecting a better outcome? Setting yourself up to be a potential beneficiary of the Pygmalion effect?

Isn’t that a breakfast you want the team eating Monday mornings?

You won’t ever know if the Pygmalion effect has played out until you see the result and it’s actually better than you might have previously expected. Even then, you might explain it away with other reasons.

Frankly, I don’t think it matters.

The life, the culture and team environment where you expect more from yourself, where you back yourself in, where leaders encourage and believe in the crew to get the bigger, better, bolder outcomes?

That’s a place to be. 

That’s a life.

When you’re putting your strategy together, ask yourself a simple question.

Pygmalion, or Golem?

Which one do you want working for your strategy – your growth map?


(Thanks Jason for poking me to write this...)