Ever heard of the Pygmalion effect? It’s the phenomenon in which the expectation placed on people actually affects the way they perform. For example, if teachers expect high performance from children, they perform exceptionally well. If they expect poor performance, that’s what they get – poor performance. Psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in 1968 proved that this a fact of life.
I’ve been working with two farmers in recent weeks. One of them, let’s call him Stan, is bursting with energy and can’t wait to develop all the remaining undeveloped land on his farm. He has a vision of moving into a whole new added-value business. His greeting is always cheerful and he’s forever smiling. I arrive home after visiting him whistling and full of positive feelings and a great love of life.
Wynand farms the same crop. He has a bigger farm, and is making good money. But he and his wife are the unhappiest couple on earth. For them the country is going to the dogs, their employees are all useless and their export agent is doing a bad job. I suspect they’re telling everyone that I too am incompetent. I arrive home depressed after visiting them.
It’s that Pygmalion effect working on me.
Rosenthal and Jacobson showed that whatever position you take in life will tend to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that you’re surrounded by fools, that there are no opportunities, that the competition is too tough and that you can’t make a go of it, all of this is likely to come true. Pessimism and defeatism drain you of life. They suck the energy and motivation out of you, impair your health, ruin friendships, marriages and destroy ability.
Everyone around you will be affected by your attitude. My first job is to get Wynand to change his attitude, but I’m not sure that’s possible. So what I’m likely to tell them is that yes, they’ll never make it. And yes, the sooner they get out of it the better. Not because they have a bad farm and a bad business, but because of their negative attitude and the Pygmalion effect that’s working on all the people they depend on for their success.
South Africa has been through a bad patch. Our education and health systems are ranked the worst in the world – even worse than Zimbabwe. Now we have ongoing strikes and violence, hundreds of millions being wasted on Zumaville, the SAA Board and senior management resigning en masse and, to crown it, President Zuma’s invalid appointment of the head of the National Prosecuting Authority. This deluge of bad news, coupled with Wynand and his wife’s whinging, has been sorely testing my reservoir of optimism. I need to snap out of it, and seek ‘cures for pessimism’.
The first step in fighting pessimism is to appreciate its uselessness and its pervasive effect on everyone around you. Secondly, we must understand why we gravitate so easily to pessimism. It’s pretty simple. Our brains are more receptive to the negative than the positive. Threatening images capture our attention. A Malema headline catches the eye, and we skip the good news. Bad news is top-of-mind.
Our brains are also prone to over-generalise, to see patterns in unrelated random events and to jump to unjustified conclusions too fast. We also need to remember that, for this reason, bad news sells. The press survives on negativity, and people share bad news more readily than good news. News about death always travels faster than news about birth. TV is an optimism killer. There are hours upon hours of selective pessimism-producing news and the world seems to be a far more dangerous and depressing place than it really is.
I don’t know a successful business manager who isn’t an optimist at heart, and you can take this as a golden rule of management: if you don’t retain a spirit of optimism, you will never manage a successful business. That’s not to say you must be a naive optimist who recklessly gets involved in all sorts of ill-considered business activities. Absolutely not! But
first you must see the good side and the opportunities, and then consider the risks and negatives.
Natural forces of society and humanity will drive you towards becoming like Wynand. Realise the dangers this holds for you, your family, your business and your country, and fight against it.
Contact Peter Hughes at [email protected]. Please state ‘Managing for profit’ in the subject line of your email.
This article was originally published in the 09 November 2012 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.