We are what we think we are (Guest commentary)

Helping employees believe in themselves sets the stage for them to thrive
By Bruna Martinuzzi
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/20/2007

I am afraid of spiders. I know they are harmless little creatures, but if I see a spiderweb in my basement, I am immediately on the alert for the dangerous intruder. Because of this mild phobia, the word “spider” catches my attention whenever I see it in print. Such was the situation when, during the course of unrelated research, I learned that if we have a fear of spiders, we are more likely to notice them. This is exactly what happens in my household. I am always the one who discovers the lone spider in the basement while others are oblivious to its peaceful existence.

If we are anxious about something, we are more likely to notice what we perceive as a threat than those who are relaxed. In other words, whatever we focus on, we see. This is a powerful concept with significant implications for both our personal and professional lives. What we see is deeply influenced by what we expect. Over the years, many scholars have worked on variations of this concept, such as The Rosenthal Effect, also known as the Pygmalion Effect (a psychological finding where a leader’s high expectations of others cause high performance), and the obverse, the “set up to fail syndrome” where low expectations of others causes low performance.

While these concepts have to do with expectations we have of others, the Galatea Effect (named after the stone statue of the beautiful woman the sculptor Pygmalion brought to life) is about expectations individuals have of themselves. It is, in effect, when high self-expectations become the catalyst for greater personal achievements. When that happens, we become our own positive self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a significant factor in employee performance. A good leader who sets out to help employees to believe in themselves, in their ability to perform well, sets the stage for their possibility to succeed. The confidence that results from employees’ high personal expectations in turn spurs them to higher achievement and productivity — their performance rises to the level of their own expectations.