Believing is Seeing: The Pygmalion Effect and Creativity

In this post we will look at something that all leaders who are students of creativity should know: how to harness the self-fulfilling prophecy as a tool to facilitate creativity. The Pygmalion effect is a phenomenon which effectiveness in stimulating creativity is only surpassed by its simplicity.

In the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, professor of phonetics Henry Higgins takes on the challenge to transform the unruly Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle to pass as a respectable member of the aristocratic society. The ‘Pygmalion effect’ works through the self-fulfilling prophecy – that one’s positive or negative expectations about someone’s behavior, capability or performance lead to a higher propensity for the behavior, capability or performance to manifest. The phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy has been known for decades ever since it was coined by Robert K. Merton in 1948.

A classic study is the Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) classroom study, where teachers were led to believe that some students showed “signs of a spurt in intellectual growth and development”. In fact, these students were just selected at random. This in turn led the teachers to unconsciously facilitate learning and expect higher performance for these students. Indeed when subsequently tested at the end of the year, the “high potential” students showed a significant gain in intellectual growth compared to their peers (their IQ scores increased more).

The Pygmalion effect and creativity

Yet only recently has the Pygmalion phenomenon been properly researched within organizational settings. McNatt (2000) surveyed 17 studies in a meta-analysis and could conclude that the effect is fairly robust. The studies under scrutiny by McNatt examined performance criteria such as exam scores, performance appraisals and physical output.

Studies have also shown that the Pygmalion effect can be employed with the purpose of stimulating creativity. Tierney and Farmer (2004) surveyed 191 R&D employees and their corresponding 34 supervisors at a U.S. chemical company. Employees were asked to assess the degree to which their supervisors expected them to i) be creative and ii) solve problems creatively. These expectations predicted employees’ beliefs that they have the capability to be creative, and ultimately their creative behaviors.

Thus, just believing that one has the capability to be creative, one might become more motivated to pursue more unique or original ideas and solve a problem in a more creative way. Furthermore, it is thought that individuals with high self-beliefs about their capabilities to be creative use their cognitive resources in a more focused and effective way (Mumford, Redmond, & Teach, 1993)

So what do I do to harness the Pygmalion effect?

Things you can do are for example:

  • Encourage your employees to set innovative goals
  • Praise creative efforts, even if they weren’t successful
  • Stress the importance of the sharing of ideas among colleagues
  • Be creative yourself – serve as a role model
  • ‘Stand up’ for your employees innovative efforts
  • Take pride in your employees achievements
  • Publicly recognize innovative work
  • Reward creativity properly (see this post)

(Adapted from Tierney & Farmer, 2004)

An important caveat to note is that you should always back up your Pygmalion inspired expectations, otherwise they may backfire. If you just expect employees to be creative without at the same time backing them with resources (for example time and materials), they will disbelieve your good intentions (De Jong & Den Hartog, 2007).

By Leif Denti


De Jong, J. P. J., & Den Hartog, D. N. (2007). How leaders influence employees’ innovative behaviour. European Journal of Innovation Management, 10, 41-64.

McNatt, D. B. (2000). Ancient Pygmalion joins contemporary management: A meta-analysis of the result. Jornal of Applied Psychology, 85, 314-322.

Merton, R. K. (1948). The self-fulfilling prophecy. Antioch Review, 8, 193-210.

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Redmond, M. R., Mumford, M. D., & Teach, R. (1993). Putting creativity to work: Effects of leader behavior on subordinate creativity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 55, 120–151.

Tierney, P., & Farmer, S. M. (2004). The Pygmalion process and employee creativity. Journal of Management, 30, 413-432.

About the author

Leif Denti is pursuing his doctoral degree of Psychology at the University of Gothenburg, Department of Psychology. His main research venue is how project leaders stimulate creativity and innovation in their project teams (project name: Management for Sweden). Leif Denti also works as a consultant at Prospero Technology Management. Leif Denti holds a licentiate degree in Psychology at the University of Gothenburg.



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