Monthly Archives: November 2015

Proprietism and the Pygmalion Effect

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois prophetically postulates that African Americans have double-consciousness, in which they look at themselves through the eyes of white society. He presents the argument that negative stereotypes associated with African Americans are actually a complex reaction to the way they are treated by the European majority.

Six decades later, a Harvard psychologist by the name Robert Rosenthal would prove the Du Bois hypothesis experimentally. He administered IQ tests to entire schools, and reported back to the teachers which of their students possessed the potential to be superb students. The chosen students excelled over their peers as expected, and then the teachers found out the truth: it was all a lie. The alleged superstars were chosen at random.

Over the next several decades, Rosenthal’s results were repeated in many different environments including the military, businesses, and even in homes. Rosenthal called it the Pygmalion effect after a Greek myth about a sculptor of the same name who falls in love with a statue he made. The cycle goes like this: (1) our preconceptions about ourselves influence (2) our actions towards others, which impacts (3) others beliefs about us, (4) causing others’ actions towards us, which reinforces (1) our preconceptions about ourselves. (This and other information obtained from Great Expectations by Katherine Ellison in the December 2015 issue of Discover Magazine.)

Our society is run by institutions, and it is impersonal and alienating. A world in which the institution is civilaztion’s base unit of measure is one that teaches us to be mistrusting and encourages us to be self-serving. What matters in the institutional world is not doing the right thing nor keeping healthy relationships, but conforming to the rules of the institution. “CYA” (cover your ass) is actually an acceptable paradigm in the organizational world today.

In this blog I have extensively discussed how information technology could transform the world from a cumbersome stack of institutions into a huge, complex, agile, and adaptive network. We could evolve from a planet of several billion led by several thousand to one of several billion led by several hundred-million or even a billion. If we come to be structured in such a way, we shall undo the alienation of the institutionalized world.

Understanding the Pygmalion effect will be central to advancement in a deinstitutionalized world. Rosenthal has made progress uncovering some of the subtle messages leaders deliver that incite either superior or inferior performance. For example, an eyebrow raised at exactly the right moment may instill within a student the confidence to boldly act further on her intuition, while a subtle wince and head shake from a manager to an employee may elicit a crushing feeling that strengthens a defensive and perhaps even self-destructive reflex.

As I leader, I know this. I know what it’s like to blunder repeatedly in front of someone skeptical of my competence. I know what it’s like to soar, empowered by a manager who truly believes in me. I know that I’ve implemented an idea that was OK at best because it came from someone I believe to be exceedingly intelligent. I’ve also been forced to look back at a situation in which, to my horror, I inadvertently undertrained someone because I was so sure they wouldn’t apprehend it anyway.

If the world evolves into a proprietist system, we leaders must become masters at extracting the best out of those around us, for greatness is built upon accountable human relationships, not rules.

Thank you, Du Bois.