The Pygmalion Effect | How High Expectation Creates High Performance


The waitress who came to our table didn’t make eye contact. She took our order without smiling. As we got our food, I noticed she was treating other customers testily, too.

“I wonder why she waits on tables,” my lunch companion said to me. “She clearly isn’t enjoying it.”

“I wonder about her manager,” I said.

We started talking about techniques for converting lackluster employees into first-rate ones. He told me a story about a fast-food business he had managed when he was younger. The cashier in the drive-through window was a woman who never smiled. He sent her to customer service training, but he couldn’t get her to change her attitude.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I told every employee they had to collect data on how well they were doing their jobs. For each employee, I set up a measure that would improve their performance.”

“What did you tell her?”

“In her case, I told her to count how many smiles she received from customers each day.”

“That’s brilliant!” I said. “Did it work?”

“I saw the improvement right away. Because she was measuring smiles, it made her more conscious of what I expected her to do. When she smiled, she found that people smiled back. In a week she was a completely different employee.”

That’s a great example, I said, of the Pygmalion effect. People perform better when they are expected to perform better.

My friend asked me if I had written about it.

It’s a basic part of managing well, I said. Your attitude toward other people affects how they perform. By communicating to her the way you did, you raised her awareness and helped her perform better. Nice going.

That woman could charm the buns off a hot dog, he said with a smile.

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