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The Pygmalion Effect

SculptureWhy does someone who has been transformed through training and on-the-job experiences provided by an organization, choose to leave that organization?  

What can leaders do to help ensure that the individuals they invest in will stay with the organization?  Consider this enchanting and timeless story.

The stakes: The training program expenses.

The characters: Professor Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering and Eliza Doolittle.

The wager:  A language expert, Professor Henry Higgins, bets Colonel Pickering that he can take a lowly flower girl from the streets of London and pass her off as an elegant young lady of society after an intensive six-month training program.

The tale:  George Bernard Shaw wrote the classic play, Pygmalion, which was the basis for the hit musical, My Fair Lady and the films, Pygmalion and My Fair Lady.

The Pygmalion Effect:  Pygmalion was a sculptor. According to Greek mythology, he fashioned a statue of a beautiful woman. Pygmalion prayed to the gods that the statue be transformed into a real woman. His wish was granted. From this mythical story came what is commonly known as the Pygmalion Effect which states: People can be shaped by others according to how they are treated.

The training program:  Professor Higgins teaches Eliza Doolittle etiquette and protocol, shows her how to make an entrance, dresses her as a fine lady and transforms her cockney accent into cultured English sentences.

The outcome:  Eliza Doolittle, following her extensive training, at a party held at Buckingham Palace, is assumed by all in attendance to be of royal heritage and is the talk of the event. Professor Higgins wins the bet.

The rest of the story:  Although Professor Higgins succeeded in transforming the flower girl, he went right on treating her like a street urchin. Eliza, speaking to Colonel Pickering, said “You know I will always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl. But I will always be a lady to you, because you always treat me like a lady.” 

Eliza’s remarkable insight is something for all leaders to ponder. In our varied roles as leaders, parents, coaches, teachers, mentors and friends, most of us are aware of the power of the Pygmalion Effect and realize that people do indeed respond to how they are treated. To this end, we champion and provide growth opportunities for others. What we frequently forget, however, is that it is also important for us to respond to the growth individuals make and encourage others to do the same. 

If we remind ourselves to change our treatment of others to match the changes they have made, then perhaps, employees will not feel the need to take their new skills to a new environment that is unencumbered by old expectations. Perhaps, they will keep their skills and talents in the place that they grew them. And perhaps, the investments leaders make in employee development will result in even greater returns.

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Comments

So true Rowena. We managers remember the mistakes and frustrations rather than live in the accomplishments and changes. Sort of like letting go of our children's early mistakes and instead marveling at who they have become.

Thanks for your insight.

Thanks for your comment Rob. The parallels and lessons between leading and parenting are many and you've pointed out a great connection.

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