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Using the power of expectations for safety

'Treat the articulate citizen like voting cattle and he behaves like voting cattle', writes the historian David van Reybrouck, 'but treat him like an adult and he behaves like an adult'.


The Pygmalion Effect, named after the mythological artist who loved a statue he made of a woman, that the gods decided to bring her to life. The Pygmalion effect is reminiscent of the placebo effect. Only we are not talking about an expectation that will make us better ourselves. This is an expectation that helps others move forward.

Positive expectations

'Expectations are powerful weapons', said Rutger Bregman in his book 'Human kind'.

When managers expect more, employees perform better. When officers expect more, soldiers fight harder. When nurses expect more, patients get better faster. If we use this effect, it can also lead to safer working and therefore to fewer accidents as a result.

Negative expectations

The evil brother of the Pygmalion effect is called the Golem effect, after the Jewish legend of a beast that was created to protect the inhabitants of Prague, but turned into a monster [...]. We look less often at people from whom we expect less. We take more distance. We smile at them less. The Golem effect is a kind of nocebo. A nocebo that leaves bad students even further behind, the homeless give up hope and can radicalize lonely teenagers. There is even evidence that the Golem effect can drag entire organizations into the abyss, if negative expectations pile up.

Last week I read the article 'You will have to learn to live with it' in the Dutch paper 'Trouw' of May 29 by Sofie Rozendaal, in which it once again became clear how strong nocebo works. But the power of 'Pygmalion' was also confirmed there. In summary, the story goes like this: An oral surgeon jerk told her she would have to learn to live with the problem he had identified. As a result, in addition to the existing problem, numerous side effects arose. After a while, she went to see another, and much more empathetic, doctor who examined her and concluded that there was nothing wrong with her. Her symptoms disappeared in no time.

During my work I experienced the effect with a number of superiors, people who got the best out of me and as a result I performed well, but also managers who repeatedly told me that I was not functioning: my insecurity increased and my performance plummeted. I made 'stupid mistakes' that I did not recognize myself in and my manager again confirmed his negative expectations of me.

I have expectations of you that determine my behavior towards you; and my behavior towards you in turn influences the expectations you have of me, which determine your behavior towards me. The gay puppy is an antenna that is constantly attuned to others. Humans are reflective creatures through and through.

Leadership and Pygmalion

'A plethora of research has identified trust as a key predictor of safety performance and an essential part of proactive cultures,' writes Clive Lloyd in his book Next Generation Safety Leadership.

It is of course important that these leaders have real confidence that these employees have the potential to perform well, perhaps even better than they expect.

As I have argued so often: leaders are of great importance because they ventilate (crucial!) expectations to the employees of their teams.

But are leaders able to honestly display and express positive expectations? I think that is only possible if that trust is actually experienced.

Interestingly, according to Clive Lloyd, in terms of building trust, the integrity factor has emerged as the most important, while the care factor turns out to be the most powerful component in terms of overcoming trust.

Trust can thus be developed through integrity and care. As I mentioned, I experienced it myself, a manager who continuously let me know that I lacked the skills which got from bad to worse, but also two managers who entrusted me with tasks that I would never have expected myself being able to handle it, but successfully accomplished! And so I dare to say that the Pygmalion effect can also make a special contribution to #safety and therefore to fewer accidents.


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