The Pygmalion Effect – a leadership phenomenon

The Pygmalion Effect: success is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We all have great ideas. And we often need the help of others to let them shine. But getting people to support our brainchild is easier said than done. We know—and have probably experienced firsthand—that people don’t always do what we like them to do. We all struggle to get our ideas across. And that’s because successful execution is much harder than many of us realize. And failure doesn’t come so much because of the quality of the idea, but because of age-old, programmed human behavior. It turns out that human nature kills big ideas. Let’s take a look at one of the 8 villains on the execution road: The Pygmalion Effect. 

Consider a 15-week army course where 105 soldiers were assigned to one of 4 instructors. A few days before the start of the program, each instructor was briefed, including the following message:

We have compiled much data on the trainees including psychological test scores, sociometric evaluations, grades in previous courses, and ratings by previous commanders. Based on this information, we have predicted the command potential (CP) of each soldier. …Based on CP scores, we have designated each trainee as having either a high, regular or unknown CP, the latter due to incomplete records. When we’re not sure, we don’t guess. Soldiers of all 3 CP levels have been divided equally among the 4 training classes.

Each instructor was given their list of trainees (one-third of whom had a high CP, one-third a regular CP, and the remainder an unknown CP). They were then asked to copy each trainee’s command potential into their personal records and learn the names and scores before they arrived.

It’s important to know that, at the time, these 4 instructors didn’t know that the command potential classification—the performance score on the list they received—was completely random. In other words, the soldier listed as having the highest CP could very well be the worst soldier in the group.

After 16 weeks, at the end of the combat course, the performance of the 105 soldiers was tested in 4 different areas. One of these performance evaluations, for example, was their proficiency in the use of weapons they had been trained to master.

The outcome? Those soldiers who got marked with a high command  potential  significantly  outperformed  their  classmates  in  all 4 subjects. Those with an average CP scored the lowest. The third group—those with an unknown performance potential—ended up in the middle. The difference in performance between the best and the worst group was 15 percent.

After detailed analysis, it showed that the experimentally induced expectations—the fake command potential scores—explained al- most three-quarters of the variance in performance. In other words, by making a superior believe a subordinate has the ability to be a great performer, the actual performance increases. And the effect isn’t marginal. It’s a whopping 2-digit figure!

Strange, don’t you think? When we believe a team member has the ability to be a great performer, our belief becomes reality. The performance expectation we have for our team members is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the end, to succeed as a strategist, we need a thorough understanding of what makes people tick. And that’s on top of industry dynamics, customer behaviors and financial savyiness. We need to have a deep understanding of how people process information and take decisions, what makes them care about an idea, and what gives them the energy to take action. And when we do, our idea has all it needs to succeed.

The Pygmalion Effect is one of the 8 execution villains I discuss in The Execution ShortcutYou can download a free ebook with more interesting stories here. 

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Strategy Execution Survey: your free copy

By Rafael Lemaitre

Strategy Execution has been slowly and steadily strengthening as an emerging discipline over the years. A large amount of knowledge, research and academic papers have been written on the subject, not to mention the large number of conferences and presentations. Nevertheless, this information has some pitfalls. The first is that it relies on outdated data, take for example the saying used by so many consultants, subject matter experts and enthusiast practitioners, regarding the “golden rule of execution” which states that companies lose a big percentage of their Strategy (intent) during its implementation (around 60%). This “rule” (with all its different versions) relies solely on a Harvard Business Review article published in 2004, using a data set (prior to 2004) for drawing its conclusions which is not necessarily up-to-date data. Moreover, the study was conducted in the ‘West’, and extrapolating its findings to organizations across the world (whether public or private) seems somehow quite challenging.

The Middle East in general and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council in particular, have shown impressive growth over the past few years. However, little has been done to identify what the specific details of organizations in this region are when it comes to definition and execution of their strategies, nor what is the state of these practices and the sophistication of the management tools employed. In this regard, a research project has been launched: “The State of Strategy Execution in the Middle East” (SOS-E). The objective of which is to contribute in generating data and knowledge specific for the Middle East, on the strategic capabilities of organizations in this particular region.

Results of this survey will have multiple benefits. First, it will help organizations to benchmark themselves against best practices, both in the region as well as globally (thanks to its comparability with the largest strategy execution related research in the world, the Strategy Execution Barometer). Secondly, the data generated will contribute towards strengthening the knowledge available about this region, which will help to tackle problems and challenges with a tailor-made approach, avoiding generalizations with other studies.

SOS-E is a not for profit effort that is being conducted by the Strategy Tribe partners in the Middle East (ShiftIN Partners), in cooperation with one of the world’s a top 20 Business School (SP Jain), and Jeroen de Flander. Participating in this survey is completely free of cost, and all participants will receive a free copy of the results at the end of the survey.

All data follows strict confidentiality protocols. We invite all readers to support this initiative and take the survey at

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Useful Strategy Execution ebook

Strategy Execution eBook  pdf

Strategy Execution is more important then ever. This 27-page ebook will help you identify the 7 most common strategy execution hurdles (execution villains) and shows you how to combat them. Download your strategy execution ebook here.     Strategy Execution ebook: overview The Curse of Knowledge: The Tapping and ‘E’ Experiment Decision Paralysis: The Jam Experiment [...]

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Strategic management is crucial for any organization. Lots of research has been done on the topic and many books have been written about strategic management. Here are 8 crucial insights: Strategic Management #1. Strategy has been around for a long time The word ‘strategy’ originated from the world of ancient Greek military art. It is [...]

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Develop great habits: a lesson from Jerry Seinfeld

Habits are crucial. In Making Habits, Breaking Habits, Jeremy Dean tells the following story: a young comedian asked Jerry Seinfeld, the famous comedian, for advice on how to improve. Seinfeld replied that the key to being a better comedian was to write better jokes, and the way to write better jokes was to practice. But [...]

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