Business Psychology: Golem Effect vs. Pygmalion Effect

Mountain with a flag at the top.

“High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectations.”
—Charles Kettering, American inventor

Can managers’ expectations of their employees influence work outcomes? Absolutely. Dubbed the “Golem” and “Pygmalion” effects, these complementary psychological phenomena describe what happens when superiors communicate their feelings about their subordinates’ abilities to achieve. Familiarization with these effects is beneficial for anyone who wants to understand the human mind or improve employee performance.

The Golem Effect

The Golem effect describes the process where superiors (such as teachers or managers) anticipate low performance from a subordinate, causing the very behavior they predict. In Hasidic mythology, the Golem was a creature built from clay and mud, designed to serve its master, reports the Journal of Management Education. However, the creator of the Golem knows that given the opportunity, the creature will bring about trouble and destruction, something which eventually comes to pass.

Managers who contribute to the Golem effect believe that certain employees lack the skills, potential or willingness to succeed. This leads to a change in leadership style, where managers may:

  • Set more explicit targets and deadlines
  • Assign more routine tasks
  • Monitor employees on a regular basis
  • Emphasize operational concerns instead of strategic ones

Whether explicitly communicated or not (often these beliefs aren’t), managers make it clear to their subordinates that their trust in them is limited. When faced with this reality, employees do, in fact, become less motivated and less likely to achieve, thus completing a self-fulfilling prophecy. When managers view the employee’s inferior performance, they may double down on their overbearing management style. In this way, the cycle sustains itself.

The Golem effect’s negative consequences are substantial. It may cause:

  • Lack of employee self-trust and self-confidence
  • Lack of employee trust in peers and superiors
  • Disregarded ideas
  • Discouraging responsibility
  • Lower productivity
  • Increased chances of employees behaving opportunistically
  • Lack of encouragement of innovative problem solving

At worst, employees who fall victim to the Golem effect may choose to leave their positions or companies, ending a problematic and unsustainable situation.

The Pygmalion Effect

If the Golem effect lowers employee performance, the Pygmalion effect does just the opposite. In the Pygmalion effect, a superior’s raised expectations of subordinates actually improve performance, explains the Journal of Business and Management. The name “Pygmalion” comes from the Greek poet Ovid. Ovid writes of a sculptor named Pygmalion, who builds a statue of a woman so beautiful he falls in love with it, and it subsequently comes to life. (The statue’s name was Galatea. Thus, the “Galatea effect” describes the phenomenon of raising one’s self-expectations as a way to increase one’s own work performance.)

In the Pygmalion effect, managers tend to offer subordinates more trust, freedom and responsibility. They tend to work more closely with employees to look for solutions to problems, instead of simply telling them how things should be done. The positive effects for such a hands-off approach include:

  • Increased productivity
  • Better levels of employee commitment and motivation
  • Increased proactiveness
  • Increased integration with company strategies and goals
  • Better employee self-confidence
  • More innovation

Simply understanding these effects isn’t enough, however. To prove useful, this knowledge must be put to practical use.

Maximizing Employee Performance

Superiors can bring out the best in their subordinates by doing the following, LinkedIn explains:

  • Clearly and regularly convey high expectations
  • Make all company leaders aware of the Golem and Pygmalion effects, and the impact they have on employee performance
  • Continually affirm employees’ capabilities
  • Ensure new employees work with seasoned managers
  • Provide employees opportunities for challenging assignments, and ensure that successes are reached before assigning new ones
  • Let employees develop their own professional development plans
  • Offer one-on-one training
  • Assign experienced mentors
  • Promote an equitable work environment
  • Keep feedback positive and emphasize solutions
  • Show genuine concern for employee development and success

With the right education, anyone seeking to better the workplace through the psychological understanding of motivation can do so.

Gaining Insight to Advance Your Career

The mystery of what motivates people is key to improving real-world outcomes. At Brescia University, the online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and online Master of Science in Management degrees prepare students with the skills they need to build successful and valuable careers. Offered fully online, Brescia’s programs are designed to fit around the demands of even the busiest working adults. Brescia was named one of the Best Online Colleges for 2018.