The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect

Two men on a bench

Many years ago, as a broken and hurting youth, my life and trajectory was completely transformed. 

From a young man who was committing crimes, using an excessive number of illicit drugs, and on a path to certain prison, I changed paths, headed in a new direction, and ended up moving towards where I am today. 

The abandonment, abuse and tragedy of my early childhood had set me on a dark path, but somehow, I found myself on a new and bright trail filled with hope and possibility. 

And, it is no exaggeration to say that I would not have stayed on that new path, or be where I am today, without the help of a man named Bruce.

Bruce himself had come from a rough and difficult background, and at a time in my life where I craved and yearned for male validation and affirmation, he provided it freely. He sat with me, he listened to me as I worked through my hardship and pain, and he allowed me a safe space to grow and develop.

When I needed support, he made himself available, and when I frequently made mistakes, he stood beside me and helped me get better, without judgment or devaluing my person. When I would beat myself up for my repeated struggles to shake off the tentacles of my past, and when I almost gave up time and again, Bruce was there.  He cared, he shared, he nurtured, and he loved.

Simply put, Bruce was tapping into the Pygmalion Effect.

Here is what the Pygmalion Effect looks like in real life:

Pygmalion Effect

Amazing leaders and coaches shape high performance in their people because they strongly believe in the abilities of their people to achieve even the most challenging goals.

That’s because positive expectations profoundly influence not only people’s aspirations, but also, often unconsciously, how you behave toward them.  Your beliefs about people are broadcast in ways you may not even be aware of.  You give off cues that say to people either, “I know you can do it”, or, “There’s no way you’ll ever be able to do that”.

The people you influence as a leader will find it difficult to realize their highest level of performance unless you let people know in word and deed that you are confident that they can attain it.

Social psychologists refer to this as the “Pygmalion Effect”, from the Greek myth about Pygmalion, a sculptor who carved a statue of a beautiful woman, fell in love with the statue, and appealed to the goddess Aphrodite to bring her to life.  His prayers were granted.

Leaders play Pygmalion-like roles in developing their people. Ask people to describe the best leaders they’ve ever had, and they will consistently describe those who believed in them, saw their potential, and caught them, not so much doing “wrong” but doing “right”.

The expectations you hold as a leader and coach provide the framework into which people fit their own realities. They shape how you behave toward others and how they behave in their roles. 

The truth is that the Pygmalion Effect happens in both positive and empowering contexts, and negative and destructive ones.

The best way to ensure that you are always operating in positive and empowering contexts is to cultivate and develop Emotional Intelligence (EQ)EQ is a different type of intelligence.  It’s about being “emotionally smart,” and not just “intellectually smart”.

Emotional Intelligence matters just as much as intellectual ability, if not more so, when it comes to happiness and success in life.

Emotional Intelligence helps you build strong relationships, succeed at work, and achieve your goals. Emotional Intelligence also helps you nurture people and thrive as a leader.

You can have strong people skills and not be a good leader, but you cannot be a good leader without people skills.

John Maxwell

Successful leadership is about 90% people knowledge and 10% product or policy or procedure knowledge.

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to identify, use, understand, and manage your emotions in positive and constructive ways.  It is about recognizing your own emotional state and the emotional states of others. Emotional intelligence is also about engaging with others in ways that draw people to you.

Emotional Intelligence Consists of Four Key Areas:

  1. Self-awareness – The ability to recognize your own emotions and how they affect your thoughts and behavior, know your strengths and weaknesses, and have self-confidence: basic self-worth.
  2. Self-management – The ability to control impulsive feelings and behaviors, manage your emotions in healthy ways, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances.
  3. Social awareness – The ability to understand the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people, pick up on emotional cues, feel comfortable socially, and recognize the dynamics in a group or organization.
  4. Relationship management – The ability to develop and maintain good relationships, communicate clearly, inspire and influence others, work well in a team, and manage conflict.

Emotional Intelligence Includes Four Abilities:

  1. Perceiving Emotions – the ability to detect and decipher emotions in faces, pictures, voices, and body language — including the ability to identify one’s own emotions.  Perceiving emotions represents a basic aspect of emotional intelligence, as it makes all other processing of emotional information possible.
  2. Using Emotions – the ability to harness emotions to facilitate various cognitive activities, such as thinking and problem solving.  The emotionally intelligent person can capitalize fully upon his or her changing moods in order to best fit the task at hand.
  3. Understanding Emotions – the ability to comprehend emotion language and to appreciate complicated relationships among emotions, and some of the sources of emotion.  understanding emotions encompasses the ability to be sensitive to slight variations between emotions, and the ability to recognize and describe how emotions evolve over time.
  4. Managing emotions – the ability to regulate emotions in both ourselves and in others.  Therefore, the emotionally intelligent person can harness emotions, even negative ones, and manage them to achieve intended goals.

EQ is seen best when we develop “presence” in our body language.  90% of all communication is not verbal, but non-verbal.

“Non-verbal communication”, or what you say with your body, actions, and expressions accounts for up to 90% of our communication.  This means that if we are to demonstrate EQ and presence with people, we need to be visual.  We must communicate non-verbally:

  • Our Eyes Communicate Presence or Distance – by a simple glance, we communicate engagement or distance.
  • Our Facial Expressions Communicate Presence or Distance – do our expressions make people feel engagement or distance, i.e. do we smile regularly, look at people when they’re speaking, and communicate interest?
  • Our Words Communicate Presence or Distance – So, let’s speak life.  If we want to influence people, we need to speak only life.  The tongue has the power of life and death.  Creative power is released with but a word.  We can literally create life and hope and healing and growth with our words, or we can bring despair, discouragement, and negativity. Energy flows through our words.  Socrates said, “Let him that would move the world first move himself”.

One final thought. 

Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight.  Extend them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster.  Your life will never be the same again.

Og Mandino

A big person is one who makes us feel bigger when we are with them.  Robert Orben said that, “A compliment is verbal sunshine”.

Let’s ensure that we leverage the Pygmalion Effect in positive and empowering contexts, rather than negative and destructive ones.

The best way to ensure that we always operate in positive and empowering contexts is to cultivate Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Missed our last blog post about 20/20 vision for 2020? Click here to read!


  1. Derrich Milne on February 29, 2020 at 8:58 am

    Brilliantly expressed!

  2. Donna James on February 29, 2020 at 10:26 am

    Great post! I completely agree. Whether as a coach, parent, partner or friend it’s imperative that we watch for, encourage and engage with others based on those non verbal cues.

  3. Paul Moore on February 29, 2020 at 4:16 pm

    Hi Abe, I’ve been following you and your life for many years. I knew you when you were a young man at a Church I attended with you. I always saw a positive and capable young man in you. And look, now you are changing lives with your positive approach to people and showing them acceptance where few or no one would. You are to be commended for that. I’ve often pondered the thought of finding out more about your coaching program. Well, you have my email now, so we’ll see where this goes.

  4. Bertrand Ndeffo on March 1, 2020 at 12:37 pm

    Thank you for this great article!
    The Emotional Intelligence is often the missed component in many leaders. Fortunately, your article explains how to reverse that situation. A must read for every coach and leader.

  5. Lois Parsons- Young on March 3, 2020 at 4:01 pm

    I read this twice ,excellent

  6. Muhammad Ahmed Raza on March 23, 2020 at 7:39 am

    Nice article. This term was new to me, although content and points are somehow general.

    Much Appreciated.

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