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As a leader, where you pitch the standard is all-important.

I was once informed by a South African insurance company that “the national standard (and it always has been) is an average of seven policies sold per week”.

I was then told by a salesperson in Durban that she delivered an average of 11 policies per week. She would work over the weekend if necessary to make the target.

I asked her boss if she was the exception. “Everyone in my team delivers an average of 11 policies per week,” said the boss. “I know it is possible because I did it when I was a salesperson. I expect nothing less.”

I asked myself whether I had perchance come across an exceptional group of salespeople. Not at all, I concluded … I had come across an exceptional sales team leader!



The fascinating leadership phenomenon called the Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect was first discovered in a classroom, but you’ll find its effects everywhere.

In a famous army experiment, in a 15-week army training course, 105 soldiers were assigned to instructors.

Before the course started each instructor was given the following message: “We have collected a lot of data regarding the trainees you will receive in the coming days. It considers psychological tests, grades from previous courses, and ratings by previous commanders. Based on this information we have predicted the command potential of the soldiers you are going to receive as High ones, Average ones, and unfortunately there are a few soldiers where we don’t have any data. Please learn their names and their scores by heart before they arrive.”

It’s important to know that at the time these instructors didn’t know that the classifications that had been given to the soldiers are in fact completely random – in other words, a soldier listed as High Command Potential could very well have been the worst soldier in the group or vice versa.

After the 16-week course each soldier was tested. The soldiers that were labelled High Command Potential significantly outperformed their classmates; those with an Average Command Potential scored the lowest; and the third group (those with an unknown performance potential) ended up in the middle.

The difference was quite big – 15% between the first group and the last group.

Isn’t that amazing?

So when we believe a team member has the ability to be a great performer, our belief becomes reality; the performance expectations we have for our team members are self-fulfilling prophecies.

That’s the Pygmalion effect.

But how does it work?

As soon as the instructors believed that some soldiers had better abilities than others, they started managing those individuals differently. Raising expectations triggers a leadership process that results in superior performers, so better leadership in turn has a direct positive effect on the superb subordinates’ performances; it kick-starts positive effects. Just imagine the extra boost you get when somebody is giving you positive attention.

Leaders get the performance they expect.

When they believe and expect low performance their expectations kick-start a negative spiral that leads to low performance.

But if we can imagine everybody to be a great performer, if we apply a can-do management style to everyone in the team – when we believe our team members have what it takes to succeed like those instructors believed the soldiers with High Command Potential did, the chance that they will actually succeed will be much higher.

So the Pygmalion effect teaches us that we have to be careful in what we believe. Most of us have the habit of labelling team member A as a high performer, B as average and as having reached her ceiling, and C as a low performer. But our labels are self-fulfilling prophecies.

For those that end up in the high performance category, that’s great – they’ll get the leader they deserve. But for those that we categorize as average or low performers, that is not the case because when we don’t expect greatness our leadership style won’t be great either. And thus we contribute to their failure.

So if we want to increase our team’s success rate we have to reconsider the relationship we have with all our team members, not only the ones with High Command Potential. We need to create a can-do environment, a place where we expect success from every team member, not only a few high performers.

Leaders who believe all team members will succeed will outperform those that don’t.