Pygmalion and Employee Learning: The Role of Leader Behaviors – Bezuijen et al. - 2009 - Article

What is the Pygmalion effect?

Employee engagement in learning is defined as discretionary behaviors in ongoing learning activities to master new knowledge, skills, and abilities. Employee learning is important for maintaining organizational effectiveness. Managing and supporting employee learning should be considered an essential part of leaders´ responsibilities. However, research indicates that leaders allocate their investments in employees in accordance with their expectations of those employees. These expectations may initiate a self-fulfilling prophecy, called the Pygmalion effect. Leader expectations activate certain leader behaviors, which in turn affect employee attitudes and behaviors in the expected direction. 

Which are the potential mediators of the Pygmalion effect in organizations?

Based on Rosenthal´s four-factor Pygmalion model, the following mediators are derived, mediating between leader expectations and employee engagement in learning activities: 

  • Leader-member exchange (LMX relationship). A warm social emotional climate resembles a high-quality LMX relationship - a relationship of trust, respect, and obligation between leader and employee. 
  • Goal setting. Teaching increasingly difficult material implies that students must acquire a higher level of knowledge and skills as each step in the learning process requires that students meet higher goals. Teachers use implicit and explicit forms of goal setting which may be a mediating factor. 
  • Providing learning opportunities. Leaders in organizations may stimulate employee learning by providing more learning opportunities, such as time and resources, to employees they value highly. 
  • Providing feedback.

What is the expected underlying mechanism of the positive outcomes of a high LMX relationship?

Employees in high LMX conditions have been found to have higher levels of satisfaction with their supervisors and their work, more organizational commitment, more role clarity, and better job performance. The underlying mechanism is expected to be the concept of social exchange. The valuable resources (knowledge, skills, and expertise) that leaders invest has positive effects on the employees´ development. These employees tend to receive greater opportunities for personal growth and challenging work assignments, have a quicker career progression, and engage more frequently in learning activities. 

How do specific and more difficult goals result in better employee engagement?

Specific goals direct action through informing employees about the desired behavioral repertoire and focusing employees on goal-relevant activities. They will be able to activate stored knowledge, skills, and cognitive processes to find the right strategy. Difficult goals inform employees about the desired performance level, stimulate effort and persistence, and help employees develop task-specific strategies. 

How does providing learning opportunities influence employee engagement in learning activities? 

Leaders can offer many different learning opportunities for employees, like giving challenging job assignments, assigning membership to a special task force, and starting up new operations. The exposure to new situations requires that the employees learn new or update existing routines and behaviors. Research has shown that a learning-oriented work environment enhances learning behavior. It is thus suggested that leader expectations affect leaders´ provision of learning opportunities and that these opportunities enable employees to engage in learning activities. 

How is feedback expected to mediate the relationship between leader expectations and employee engagement in learning activities?

Feedback has become a popular tool for stimulating employee engagement. By providing feedback, leaders create a gap between current and desired performance. Employees will make an effort to close this gap. Especially feedback interventions that direct attention to adequate on-task behavior have shown to lead to more rapid learning, decreased errors during training, and improved performance. 

What is concluded in this study about the Pygmalion effect and employee engagement in learning activities? 

Leader expectations were related to employee engagement in learning activities. Employees engaged more actively in learning behaviors when their leaders had higher expectations about the ability to learn new knowledge and skills. Leaders also showed more of the leader behaviors associated with their higher expectations, namely they developed higher quality LMX relationships, set more specific and difficult goals, and provided more learning opportunities, and gave more feedback. Setting specific goals and providing learning opportunities were related to employee engagement in learning activities. The results are thus in accordance with Pygmalion theory.

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