Career Success Through Healthy Interactions

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Have you ever noticed that for some colleagues and bosses you'll move mountains while for others, you can't seem to do anything right? What's going on here? Is it just you or is there a larger issue at work?

Recently a friend and I were discussing an incident where she lost her “stop-gap" job as a sales clerk at a bookstore. She's a professional woman who had been supplementing her free-lance writing income with several days a week at this local branch of a national chain. In spite of the fact that she thought she was doing a good job, every time she turned around the owner was riding her for some transgression. First she was blamed for someone else's computer errors. Then rather than being praised for helping a customer grow a small order of books found in the store into a large order including additional books she ordered at my friend's suggestion, the owner saw this as a mistake. Stick to what we have on hand and don't raise expectations was the reprimand.

My friend thought she was crazy, but every time she stepped into the bookstore she found herself losing confidence and was poised to make mistakes she'd never make in any other setting. Was she losing her edge she wondered?

I saw this incident as clear as light as a great example of diminished expectations and the halo effect (taking one person's perspective and generalizing to everyone's). The operative principle at work is - other people's thoughts about us can impact our performance - especially those in authority!

Remembering an incident dating back 15 years when my son was in kindergarten, I shared it with my friend to substantiate my position. During a two day period when I observed his class, I noticed how his teacher treated each child with respect, admiration and a belief they could do anything she challenged them to do - no matter how timid they might be. With this attitude, she was able to bring forth capabilities from everyone in the class. Yet, each day the traveling art teacher entering the very same room displayed a different viewpoint about many of the students. In her estimation one boy in particular was a true nemesis. She disciplined and ridiculed him continuously during each of the hours I observed. After the art teacher left, the child magically transformed back into the angel the kindergarten teacher expected. It was amazing to watch this transmutation before, during and after the art teacher's appearance on both days I was there.

The only change that had occurred was the teacher's expectation of what she would find. This is often referred to as the Pygmalion Effect, named after George Bernard Shaw's play, Pymalion. This was popularized in the ‘60's in the musical film adaptation My Fair Lady when Rex Harrison transformed Audrey Hepburn, a Cockney-speaking woman into an aristocrat. He was able to work miracles with her in a short time because he believed in her. The theory is we rise (or fall) to someone else's expectation of us.

In the work world this issue carries profound implications -whom we work for and with and their opinions of our abilities, skills and overall capacities can profoundly affect our productivity and output.

Here's an example. A company recently conducted a 360-assessment process with each member of the management team as preliminary to a company-wide retreat. Even though many of the people who participated in the process had worked side-by-side for many years, this was one of the first times they were offered any direct feedback on their performance by colleagues and bosses because this small, entrepreneurial organization had never adopted any formal performance review process. This was the first attempt of its kind to begin to put some issues on the table, prior to the retreat.

Questions in the assessment ranged from “What I have liked about working with you" to “What gets in my way of working as effectively as I could with you. " All responses were anonymous.

One person, we'll call Janet, observed that many people who completed her survey praised her for her time management skills, creativity and initiative. Yet someone (and she had her idea of who this might be) remarked that she needed to improve her ability to be proactive. If she had her suspicions right, this person was a key member of the management team and had a lot of influence on the direction of the organization and her place in it. As Janet reviewed in her mind the interactions she'd had with this person over the last several months, she recognized times when this person had either directly or indirectly told her to be more proactive.

Yet try as she may, within his sphere of influence she found herself tongue-tied and less effective than she was when collaborating with other members of the team. It had to be his belief about her capability that was making the difference in the same way that the kindergarten art teacher had affected the little boy. When she was believed to be effective, Janet rose to the occasion and gave 150%. When she felt the energy of this authority figure's lowered expectations, she couldn't muster the drive she needed to produce the results he was after.

So what can we do about the negative effect of a colleague's or bosses’ diminished opinion of us?

  • First, when looking for a new job, we can try to find a culture of positive thinkers. We can learn to ask questions to get a sense of how much judgment these people infuse with their daily interactions with each other.
  • We can be aware of this Pygmalion Effect and do our best not to let others’ opinions of us and our performance capacities wash over us and affect us. In other words, we can picture ourselves creating a “thought shield" around ourselves and strengthen it by holding only positive beliefs about our own abilities.
  • We can hire a coach or a mentor with whom we interact weekly and who views us as whole, creative and resourceful and refuses to stand in judgment about us in any way. We can bathe in the glow of these positive considerations and stretch ourselves in whatever ways we can to live up to these expectations.
  • We can teach our colleagues and bosses about the Pygmalion Effect and hold discussions within our organization or workgroup about these issues - bringing the issue to the light of day rather than ignoring it or pretending it is not there.
  • Finally, we can guard against having negative thoughts or judgments ourselves about people we supervise, collaborate with or report to - adapting a motto of “Look for the good, the bad will take care of itself. "

    Choose your thoughts and your colleagues carefully and wisely. - Your performance depends on it!

    Melanie Keveles MA, CPCC, Certified Professional Life Coach and Certified Best Year Yet Coach has been a career and outplacement consultant, trainer and writer for more than 20 years. She coaches clients via telephone who seek career satisfaction, or want to launch entrepreneurial ventures. You can contact her for a free session at; by phone at 715.394.4260 or on the Web at

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