Pygmalion effect 2: A great vision comes from true leadership

Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

A PUBLIC hospital administrator was startled to see a patient fleeing down the hall out of the operating room, his loose hospital gown flapping in the breeze behind him. He stopped the patient and said: “Do you mind telling me why you ran away from the operating room?”

The patient looked at him with startled eyes and said, “It was because of what the nurse said.” The administrator asked, “Oh, what did she say?”

She replied: “Be brave. An appendectomy is quite simple.” The administrator then said, “Well, so what? Yes, it is indeed quite simple. That should comfort you.”

The patient said, “Unfortunately, the nurse was talking to the doctor and not to me.”

People like the patient in this story want to have full confidence in those who we are dealing with. That’s a reasonable expectation. On a bigger scale, we want to be moved and inspired by individuals who profess to lead us. We want to believe in something bigger than they are—a noble purpose for the organization.

To do this, organizations must outline a big, bold, and noble vision as a rallying point to help unleash the collective efforts of people. In many instances, great leaders whom I know and interacted with in the past have used the Pygmalion Effect to make things happen, even with people who would fall into the category of bozos—a term used by Steve Jobs when referring to stupid, lazy, and incompetent people.

In psychology, the Pygmalion Effect refers to a phenomenon in which the greater expectation placed on people, the better they are expected to perform. In other words, when you trust ordinary people with great responsibility and purpose, they would normally rise to the challenge, if not exceed your expectations.

Psychology took it from the Greek mythology: “Pygmalion, the king of Cyprus, carved an ivory statue of Galatea, his ideal woman. Galatea was so beautiful that Pygmalion fell in love with her, and because of his deep desire and will for her to be real, with the help of the goddess Venus, he was actually able to bring her to life, and they lived happily ever after.”

Experts call this expectation as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a boss communicates a compelling vision and holds his team to high standards, subordinates will respond positively to meet those expectations. Anything becomes possible when a team of committed individuals are inspired by a leader with noble purpose.

According to Gary Hamel, author of “The Future of Management” (2007), “a noble purpose inspires sacrifice, stimulates innovation and encourages perseverance. In doing so, it transforms great talent into exceptional accomplishment.”

This is the second time I’m writing about Pygmalion Effect. The first time was in 2011. And I’m writing again on the same topic to answer the question raised by one Elmer Cruz (not his real name), a human resource manager of a small business who asked me on how to motivate 555 (5-month employment contract) workers.

You can use the Pygmalion Effect, even on those who work as volunteers in a non-profit organization. But what if a leader is perceived more than a dealer than anything? And you have a reasonable belief to suspect that the person is occupying the post because he has another personal agenda?Would the Pygmalion Effect still work?As you can imagine, the answer is a resounding negative in big capital letters.

There are some people who are not used to an environment where excellence is expected. We’ll I’m not talking about those in government. Sure, there are many examples out there in government service which is an oxymoron itself.

You can imagine that incompetence happens everywhere, even in business organizations and non-profit associations. To arrest incompetence, a compelling vision must be led by someone with an absolute integrity. You cannot divorce a vision no matter how strong it may appear to be from a leader of an organization.

Both vision and leadership must come together. A vision is a perfect picture of a better, future world not only for the organization that professes it, but much more to the general public. Consider Steve Job’s original vision for Apple: “A computer in the hands of everyday people.”

Also, check American President John Kennedy’s vision of “landing a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.” And think of many visions that are trumpeted around by their leaders.

Now, think about the kind of organizations you would like to work for or the kind of vision statement you want to support. Do you want to work for a “leader” of dubious character? Do you want to be associated with a “leader” who has not proven himself yet? Do you want to work for a leader who must scramble his way with no clear destination?

Of course, you don’t, and neither do the people you’re trying to inspire.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback or questions to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random thoughts.


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