The Pygmalion effect is the well-known phenomena whereby the greater the
expectations placed upon people the better they perform. According to this model, if a leader has high expectations of their subordinates, and communicates this clearly through their behaviours, it can translate into enhanced subordinate performance. In the way of a self fulfilling prophecy, if the leader has high expectations for their subordinates they will exert certain behaviours (whether they  know it or not!) to make these become a reality. The leader will engage in positive leadership behaviours such as allocating sufficient resources, setting and encouraging goal attainment and providing subordinates with a supportive culture. All of this will have a positive influence on the subordinate and what do you know their performance is improved and the leaders’ expectations are met! This model however as pointed to by Karakowsky, DeGama and McBey (2012) may be overly simplistic and paints quite a passive picture of the role played by the subordinate within this Pygmalion leadership. It depicts the enhanced performance as a happy consequence of the leader’s expectations, with the subordinate’s perceptions having little or no influence. So what is the subordinate’s role?

According to Karakowsky and his colleagues (2012) the Pygmalion effect is dependent upon the subordinate’s perception of trust in their leader. In their paper, Karakowsky and his colleagues ascertain that there must be a sufficient degree of trust in the leader in order for leader expectations and supportive behaviours to have an impact on subordinate performance. Leadership trustworthiness as conceptualised in previous research is made up of subordinate perceptions of ability, integrity and benevolance. The subordinate must trust that their leader is credible and capable of discerning high potential employees from low potential employees. They must believe that the leader is able to both recognise and enhance their performance. The subordinate must also perceive integrity within their leader and believe that they will ‘practice what they preach’. In addition, to perceive trust in their leader subordinates must feel that their leader means well and is genuinely concerned for their well-being. Within the Pygmalion model this means that merely holding high expectations and exerting supportive behaviors is not enough to enhance subordinate performance. As a leader you must gain trust from your employees to ensure high expectations become a reality.

So do your employees believe you are credible and can recognise high potential when you see it?  Do your employees believe that you’re competent and will help them optimise their potential? Do your employees perceive you as possessing integrity, an honest and forthright individual who will match their words with their deeds? And finally, do your employees think you have their interests at heart? If the answer to these questions are yes then you are on your way to fulfilling your expectations and ensuring your Pygmalion leadership is successful. As Karakowsky and his colleagues have highlighted it is not enough to hold high expectations, your employees must also trust you in order for expectations to translate into enhanced performance. So do your employees trust you? They better!

Karakowsky, L., DeGama, N., & McBey, K. (2012). Facilitating the Pygmalion effect: The overlooked role of subordinate perceptions of the leader Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 85 (4), 579-599

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