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Attitude - 3 January 2013

In the magnificent musical My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle is a poor girl with a ghastly accent and a terrible grasp of the English language who sells flowers on the streets for a living. She meets Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, who makes a bet with a man named Colonel Pickering that he can turn the rough Eliza into a high-society lady of proper behaviour.

During the next six months, Professor Higgins tries to teach Eliza how to speak and how to act – but his teaching style is abrasive. He yells and insults her, calling her “infantile”, “brainless”, “wretched” and a “presumptuous insect”. In contrast, Colonel Pickering, who’s present during the lessons, treats Eliza with kindness and compassion, with politeness and respect. He expects the best irrespective of her background.

Eventually, Eliza nails it. She becomes a lady admired by all, including the king and queen. Of course, Professor Higgins takes the credit for the transformation. But, as Eliza explains, the credit actually belongs to Colonel Pickering:

“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she's treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will. But I know I shall always be a lady to Colonel Pickering because he always treats me as a lady, and always will.”

That story is a famous example of The Pygmalion Effect, which means people’s attitudes are often influenced by what their leader or teacher expects. If a leader or teacher truly believes that every employee and student can be brilliant, then empirical research demonstrates that chances of behavioural change are substantially higher.

This research, pioneered by Dr Robert Rosenthal (a social scientist), revealed four key elements of The Pygmalion Effect, all of which are evident in the workplace.

Climate: This represents mood. If you’re like Professor Higgins, you’ll avoid eye contact, rarely smile or nod, and use condescending phrases. But if you’re like Colonel Pickering, you’ll be genuinely focused, using positive words and open body language.

Input: This represents information. If you’re like Professor Higgins, you’ll share minimal knowledge to those you deem no-hopers and plenty to those you favour. But if you’re like Colonel Pickering, everyone benefits from your teaching, clear instructions, and resources.

Output: This represents responsiveness. If you’re like Professor Higgins, you’ll provide opportunities only to those you admire. But if you’re like Colonel Pickering, all employees have a chance to ask questions, to get involved, and to express what they think and feel.

Feedback: This represents quantity and quality. If you’re like Professor Higgins, you sparingly give praise unless it’s to someone you already respect. But if you’re like Colonel Pickering, everyone is entitled to detailed feedback with fair amounts of praise and criticism.

You undoubtedly have expectations of the people in your team. Those expectations subconsciously influence how you interact with them, and these interactions subsequently impact your employees’ behaviour and performance. That’s why it’s so common for an employee’s attitude to be affected more by a leader’s attitude than anything else.


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