Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You get what you expect, Rosenthal and the pygmalion effect in IT and organisations seminar

Seminar: IT Perceptions: The new reality.
Venue: Victoria University of Wellington, Feburary 2011.
Presenter: Professor James D. Mckeen, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with a sculpture he made.

I recently attended a seminar by a visiting Canadian Information Systems professor, James Mckeen, on the nature of perceptions of the IT department within an organisation. It sounds like quite a specialized topic but what he talked about was an insight into human nature, and I found it very interesting. 

He began by referencing the Rosenthal and Jacobson study. In the study a group of psychological researchers went to a school posing as educational psychologists and identified a randomised portion of the class as gifted. The students weren’t gifted, only the teacher was told this, but after a year the researchers returned and found that the students who had been identified as gifted had better learning outcomes, higher grades, then the rest of the class.  The teacher’s perception of the students changed, and improved, her teaching to such an extent her students almost became gifted. A self-fulfilling prophecy.
This seems like a built in aspect of human nature, which has been named the Pygmalion, or Rosenthal, effect.

Wikipedia describes the effect as "the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, often children or students and employees, the better they perform...

The Pygmalion effect is a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, and, in this respect, people with poor expectations internalize their negative label, and those with positive labels succeed accordingly. Within sociology, the effect is often cited with regards to education and social class."

As well as the research to back this up, my personal experience from my school days that this effect is real.  If a teacher calls a kid clown, or expects less of them, they will give them that, and if they expect more, and ask for it, they will often get that too. I've seen this effect many times.

Briefly, Professor Mckeen’s thesis was that we form expectations of people, we communicate these expectations through cues, these form both our behaviour and our relationships with other people.

Mckeen focused his discussion towards the IT department of your organisation.
If you have a negative view of the IT department in your organisation, you will consciously or unconsciously communicate these views, and in turn shape the behaviour of the IT department.  The other aspect to this is that if we have already shaped our views, people tend to only notice examples of instances or interactions that confirm these views, ignoring interactions that contradict them. So if you believe the IT department to be unhelpful, but you do successfully receive help, you tend to ignore this as it doesn’t fit your view.

How do we combat these aspects of human nature?

When Professor Mckeen was researching larger organisations, he found that when CIOs, work with CEOs, and form good working relationships this can improve the perspectives held by both parties.

He also said that the world of marketing can teach us a lot about managing perceptions. There was a pessimistic tone about the seminar, that you can't change what people think about you, only manage the perception. But I liked the more positive position that working together can help to gain understanding about what others do, and therefore, help improve working relationships. Even if it takes a long time to change perceptions, or a good working relationship is seen as an exception to the rule, it's still worth trying to break down false perceptions. 

Within organisations, it's really important to try to see things from other peoples' perspectives and try to understand, at least in principle, the work people do and the skills they have. And as Rosenthal's research has shown, if you believe your colleagues can help you do your job, they probably will.

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  1. This was an excellent post, and timely as well. My wife and I were just having this conversation about our daughter. She's an excellent softball player, and she's mastered the mechanics of the game.

    But the psychology still eludes her. Meaning, when she's playing well, she expects to play well, and she tends to outperform others on the field.

    But when something goes awry, she brings an expectation of failure to the game--and it snowballs.

    Ironic, isn't it, that when you most need a positive outlook (to straighten a crooked day), that's when it's hardest to find?

    So how do you convincingly teach "positive expectation" when a person is mired in the doldrums? I'd like to learn that, myself!

    Final note and I'll leave you alone (sorry about the long post).

    In the early grades, I dawdled along with middling scores. That's what everyone expected of me, and it's what I expected of myself.

    Come 5th grade, we take a standardized test and find I'm reading far above my age level. I remember the teacher being surprised. Following week, everything changed. She started pushing me to do more, and I expected more of myself.

    I've carried that through life.

    I need to find that woman and give her flowers. I'm in her debt.

    k: Keystone & K1000

  2. Pop in today if you get a minute.

    I did a post on libraries and a librarian. Love to see your thoughts in the comments section.

    l: Your Library: A Tale Not Told in Books

  3. Thanks for your comments Joe! I've visited your blog, it was great to read after coming home from a long day at work.

    Glad you found something interesting from my report back. Psychology and sociology are fascinating, I love thinking about human nature, and you're right about self belief and the images we have of ourselves shape what we do, as well as what other people tell us. Hope your daughter gets her game face on and doesn't let a small set back stand her way, something we need to remember on or off the feild.

    Don't apologise for comments, length or otherwise, a pleasure to read them.