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Pygmalion: What George Bernard Shaw teaches us about management and human potential


Vincent Mignotte, Director of ABG


In 1912, George Bernard Shaw wrote a five-act play called Pygmalion. It was both a critique of English society at the time, which was organized into separate social classes, and a plea for the proper use of the English language. But this play, which inspired the American musical comedy My Fair Lady, is above all the origin of a very important concept for anyone who educates, trains, coaches, mentors or directs others: the Pygmalion effect.


In an ancient legend, Pygmalion is a Cypriot sculptor who shapes an ivory statue of a woman, Galatea, and falls in love with her. The goddess Aphrodite then gives life to the statue, which Pygmalion marries1.


George Bernard Shaw's play, meanwhile, features a real young woman, Eliza Doolittle, who is selling flowers in the street in Covent Garden. Eliza is uneducated, neglected, speaks with a dreadful cockney accent, and is easily irritated. Taking shelter from the rain, she meets two gentlemen, the linguist Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering, back from India. Higgins boasts to Pickering that he is able to turn the flower girl into a duchess within six months, teaching her the distinguished use of the English language and its pronunciation. Eliza cleverly seizes this opportunity and convinces the two men to educate her.


Higgins considers himself a scientist. To him Eliza is a subject of experimentation. He is extremely rational, quick to get carried away and to swear; he attaches little importance to human relations and to the young florist herself. Pickering, on the other hand, studies Indian dialects as an amateur. He is not an expert, but he shows more empathy than his fellow.


Eliza progresses quickly and the two men can finally take her to the good London society where she seduces her interlocutors with her outspokenness. However, Higgins and Pickering have grown weary of the experience and do not even think to congratulate her. Eliza, who has become another person, with elegant manners, decides to leave them. She even tells Higgins that she, in turn, could pass on to others what he has taught her with his methods. Higgins, bitter, declares: "I tell you that I created this thing from the crushed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden; and now she pretends to play the lady with me. »


So Eliza says to Pickering, “... it was from you that I learnt really nice manners; and that is what makes one a lady, isn't it? You see it was so very difficult for me with the example of Professor Higgins always before me. I was brought up to be just like him, unable to control myself, and using bad language on the slightest provocation. And I should never have known that ladies and gentlemen didn't behave like that if you hadn't been there.”


The first lesson of this story, therefore, is that the professionalism of linguist Henry Higgins was not enough. Eliza could not become a lady simply by learning to speak refined English. She also had to learn, following Pickering's example, how to control her attitude towards other people. In today's dialect, we would say that Higgins taught Eliza "hard skills" and Pickering "soft skills"!


Eliza also says: "[...] Do you know what began my real education? Your calling me Miss Doolittle

that day when I first came.... That was the beginning of self-respect for me. And there were a hundred little things you never noticed, because they came naturally to you. Things about standing up and taking off your hat and opening doors... "


To Pickering's astonishment, she added: "You see (...) 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 can be a lady to you, because you always treat me like a lady, and always will.


And this is the famous "Pygmalion effect": believing in a person's ability to succeed in what they have undertaken increases their probability of success!


You will tell me that all this is just a nice, old-fashioned play, and that there is no scientific basis for it. In the 1960s, two social psychology researchers, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, came to a school in an underprivileged area of San Francisco, claiming to be doing a study for Harvard University. They gave pupils an intelligence quotient (IQ) test and then made it look like a mail misdirection so that teachers would see the test results. In the meantime, however, they had falsified the results. For 20% of the children, the test result was overestimated, suggesting that they were gifted. A year later, Rosenthal and Jacobson tested the children again for IQ. And there they found that the 20% who were falsely over-rated had improved their test performance by 5 to 25%! It was actually the teachers' more encouraging attitude toward these pupils that caused this result. The Pygmalion effect is therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy.2


This experiment has since been repeated many times and the conditions for the appearance of the Pygmalion effect in teaching have been studied; this effect is more pronounced among the youngest pupils, or those who have just arrived in a new school. Why is this? Simply because they do not yet have a clear picture of their academic level in this new environment, and they will therefore be sensitive to the evaluation made by their entourage. Of course, real-life situations are always complex, but the fact remains that when teachers' expectations of pupils are based on erroneous criteria or if they are too rigid, they can lead to inequalities between pupils.3


And what about management in all this? Working adults are not children. Well, here too, the Pygmalion effect exists4. Some managers treat their employees in a way that leads them to perform well, while others lead their employees to remain below their potential. This is not necessarily because they are tinkering, micro-managing or authoritarian. It can be more subtle.


Indeed, every manager or supervisor forms a representation of the people he or she is supervising. This representation contains the hopes he places in these people, as well as his opinions or prejudices about them. By his attitude, the manager can communicate, consciously or unconsciously, these representations to his employees.


The employees also consciously or unconsciously feel the representations of their manager. Little by little, they will adapt to them by behaving consistently with them. People in whom high expectations are placed will be encouraged to succeed, will have at heart to satisfy these expectations, and will succeed in doing so, while people who are considered as low performers will be left behind and will end up effectively failing.


1.   Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Book X.

2.   Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L.F., Teacher expectation for the disadvantaged, Scientific American 218, 4, 19-23 (1968)

3.   Trouilloud, D. & Sarrazin, P., Les connaissances actuelles sur l'effet Pygmalion : processus, poids et modulateurs. Revue Française de Pédagogie 145, 89-119 (2003).

4.   Sterling J. Livingston, Pygmalion in management. Harvard Business Review, Jan. 2003.