The Body Language of Pygmalion Leaders

Pygmalion in the Classroom, one of the most controversial publications in the history of educational research

Pygmalion in the Classroom, one of the most controversial publications in the history of educational research, shows how a teacher’s expectations can motivate student achievement. This classic study gave prospective teachers a list of students who had been identified as “high achievers.” The teachers were told to expect remarkable results from these students, and at the end of the year, the students did indeed make sharp increases on their IQ test scores.

In reality, these children had been chosen at random, not as a result of any testing. It was the teachers’ belief in their potential that was responsible for the extraordinary results. The children were never told they were high achievers, but this message was delivered subtly and nonverbally through expectancy behaviors such as facial expressions, gestures, touch, and spatial relationships.

In much the same way, a leader’s expectations of employees and their expectations of themselves are also key factors in how well people perform at work. Pygmalion leadership is in operation when staff excels in response to the manager’s message that they are capable of success and expected to succeed. This effect was described by J. Sterling Livingston Harvard Business Review article, Pygmalion in Management: “The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them.”

Of course, we’ve all seen instances where the reverse is true – where a leader’s verbal and (my special interest) nonverbal communication undermine staff performance and lower productivity.

I’ve also noted that sometimes these negative nonverbal behaviors aren’t all that subtle. Take, for example, this email I received: My boss drives us crazy with her mixed messages. She says things like, “You are always welcome in my office” and “You are all an important part of the team.” At the same time, her nonverbal communication is constantly showing how unimportant we are to her. She never makes eye contact, will shuffle papers when others talk, writes email while we answer her questions and generally does not give her full attention. In fact, we don’t even rate her half attention! Then she wonders why we’re all so demoralized.

Try this: Imagine that you just found out that everyone on your team had been identified as a high achiever.  And imagine that this was a secret you couldn’t share with anyone – except through your body language. How would you use to let people know they were special? (More positive eye contact, appreciative nods, smiles?)

Once you get a good idea of what you’d do, take one full week and non-verbally treat everyone who works for or with you as if they were potential stars. See if at least some of them don’t start living up to the high expectations your body language signals send.


Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an international keynote speaker for corporations, conferences, universities, and government agencies. She is a sought-after presenter whose list of clients span more than 300 organizations in 26 countries. Her programs are designed to give audiences powerful and practical strategies that can be implemented immediately.

Originally published at LinkedIn