In one of Ovid’s many books of Metamorphoses, he introduces a Greek sculptor by the name of Pygmalion. This sculpture was of a woman that was so beautiful that Pygmalion falls in love with her, even though it is a sculpture. Later he presents the love goddess Aphrodite with a gift and begs her to give him a women as beautiful as his sculpture. Upon his return back home he kisses his creation and suddenly feels that its lips are warm. After kissing it once more, he discovers that the marble sculpture came to life. Pygmalion quickly marries her and they have a son.
This idea that higher expectations (such as Pygmalion’s request for a woman as beautiful as his sculpture) will lead to better results is called the Pygmalion effect, a term coined by Robert Rosenthal.
The Pygmalion Effect in Science
In 1963, Rosenthal conducted two experiments that led to learning about the Pygmalion effect.
In the first, he gave two groups of students some rats in a maze. He told the first group that the rats were genetically enhanced and had special cognitive capabilities, while the second student group was told they had regular rats (neither group were genetically modified rats). The result of the experiment was that the first group unconsciously affected the rats causing them to solved the maze faster than the rats of the second group.
And, what about humankind?
The second experience Rosenthal conducted at the very same year (with Lenor Jacobson) was in California school.
At the beginning of the year, all the pupils had a General Ability Test. Following this IQ test, some of the pupils were randomly chosen to become academic success with no regard to the results of the test (Bruns et al., 2000).
The only to know about the name of the pupils in this group (without notifying them that they were chosen randomly) where the teachers of the class.
Rosenthal continued observing the interactions between the teachers and pupils and decided to issue another IQ test at the end of the study to see how IQ has improved for those pupils who were randomly chosen to become an “academic success” versus the control group (Spiegel, 2012).
Rosental found much improvement within the random group of the chosen pupils then the others in the class. The reason is subjected the attitude to those pupils by their teachers who were wrong to think they have some better chance to become an academic success.
An organization and its managers in general or Scrum Masters in particular have critical influence on their teams. According to the Pygmalion effect they have the power to encourage the team to reach higher by merely trusting them and giving them credit.
Organizational culture too has this power by encouraging creativity, not blaming failure, and enabling the reality of Rosenthal’s laboratory experience. Without the motivation of trying new directions, no disruptive technologies would be created.
The Golem Effect
Now the bad news is that there is also the opposite effect, and it is called the Golem effect.
Lack of trust brings lack of performance, a narrow mindset, staying in your comfort zone, yes-man dynamics, fear, low motivation, and other bad characteristics.
And you Scrum Masters, are going to discover these Golem effects and fight them. You are going to help create inspiring environment and ecosystem as well as empowering culture.
This is your quest.
But always remember that true team autonomy and creativity can only be achieved through the Pygmalion effect.