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  • Steve Nguyen, PhD

Pygmalion Effect – A Leader’s Attitude and Expectation Set the Tone

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

[Note: This post was updated April 2023 for freshness & clarity.]

In the book, Extreme Ownership, Leif Babin (a U.S. Navy SEAL officer who was a SEAL instructor overseeing the Junior Officer Training Course in the Naval Special Warfare Training Center) shared a story about the performances of two boat crews during Hell Week.


Each boat crew consisted of seven men. Each seven-man boat crew is assigned an IBS—inflatable boat, small. Even though an IBS is small by U.S. Navy standards, it can be large and heavy when you have to carry it by hand! That's because these large rubber boats weighed almost two hundred pounds and would get heavier when filled with water and sand.

As Babin explains:


"A relic from the Navy Frogmen (Underwater Demolition Team) days of World War II, the dreaded boats had to be awkwardly carried everywhere, usually upon the heads of the seven boat-crew members struggling underneath. On land, the boat crews carried them up and over twenty-feet-high sand berms and ran with them for miles along the beach. They carried them on the hard asphalt streets back and forth across Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, trying like hell to keep up with instructors leading the way. The boat crews even pushed, pulled, squeezed, and muscled the unwieldy boats through the ropes and over the telephone poles and walls of the notorious BUD/S obstacle course. Out on the Pacific Ocean, the boat crews paddled their boats through the powerful crashing waves, often capsizing and scattering wet students and paddles across the beach like a storied shipwreck. These damned rubber boats were the source of a great deal of misery for the men assigned to them. Each boat had a roman numeral painted in bright yellow on the front, indicating the boat crew number" (Willink & Babin, 2017, p. 43).

"In each boat crew the senior-ranking man served as boat crew leader, responsible for receiving orders from the instructors and briefing, directing, and leading the other six members of the boat crew. The boat crew leader bore responsibility for the performance of his boat crew. And while each member of the boat crew had to perform, the boat crew leader—by his very position as leader—received the most scrutiny from the instructor staff" (Willink & Babin, 2017, p. 43-44).

The objective of surf passage is for each boat crew to paddle out (with their IBS) from the shore, through the surf zone, and back again.


Boat Crew II (which dominated and had a strong leader) and Boat Crew VI (which came in last in almost every race and had an indifferent and inexperienced leader). A SEAL senior chief officer (one of the SEAL instructors) suggested that they swap out the boat crew leaders from the best and worst crews and see what happens. The turnaround was stunning: “Boat Crew VI, the same team in the same circumstances only under new leadership, went from the worst boat crew in the class to the best” (Willink & Babin, 2017, p. 48-49).

As Babin wrote (Willink & Babin, 2017, p. 49): “How is it possible that switching a single individual—only the leader—had completely turned around the performance of an entire group? The answer: leadership is the single greatest factor in any team’s performance. Whether a team succeeds or fails is all up to the leader. The leader’s attitude sets the tone for the entire team. The leader drives performance—or doesn’t. And this applies not just to the most senior leader of an overall team, but to the junior leaders of teams within the team.”


This is a classic example of the Pygmalion Effect.


The APA Dictionary of Psychology (VandenBos, 2007) defines Pygmalion effect as: “a consequence or reaction in which the expectations of a leader or superior engender behavior from followers or subordinates that is consistent with these expectations: a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, raising manager expectations of the performance of subordinate employees has been found to enhance the performance of those employees” (p. 868).


“The idea here is that if an employee feels that a manager has confidence in him, his self-esteem will increase, as will his performance” (Aamodt, 2010, p. 330). Indeed, leaders often get the performance they expect from their employees.


In a classic Harvard Business Review article (originally published in 1969, reprinted in 1988), Livingston wrote (1988, p. 122):

  • What managers expect of subordinates and the way they treat them largely determine their performance and career progress.

  • A unique characteristic of superior managers is the ability to create high performance expectations that subordinates fulfill.

  • Less effective managers fail to develop similar expectations, and as a consequence, the productivity of their subordinates suffers.

  • Subordinates, more often than not, appear to do what they believe they are expected to do.

“[S]uperior managers have greater confidence than other managers in their own ability to develop the talents of their subordinates” (Livingston, 1988, p. 126). Superior managers don’t give up on themselves and they definitely do not give up easily on their subordinates (Livingston, 1988).


“Managers not only shape the expectations and productivity of subordinates but also influence their attitudes toward their jobs and themselves. If managers are unskilled, they leave scars on the careers of young people, cut deeply into their self-esteem, and distort their image of themselves as human beings. But if they are skillful and have high expectations, subordinates’ self-confidence will grow, their capabilities will develop, and their productivity will be high” (Livingston, 1988, p. 130).


Takeaway: Leadership is, singularly, the most crucial factor in a team’s performance. What managers expect of their subordinates and the way they treat them significantly determine their performance and career progress. Superior managers create high performance expectations that subordinates fulfill. The best managers have confidence in themselves and in their ability to develop the talents of their subordinates.


Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D. Organizational & Leadership Development Leader


References


Aamodt, M. G. (2010). Industrial/organizational psychology: An applied approach (6th ed.). Wadsworth.


Livingston, J. S. (1969/1988). Pygmalion in management. Harvard Business Review, 66(5), 121-130.


VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2007). APA dictionary of psychology. American Psychological Association.


Willink, J., & Babin, L. (2017). Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. St. Martin’s Press.


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