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The Pygmalion Syndrome (By Pepper de Callier)

“Creating” perfection in another person has been a recurring theme in literature. In Ovid’s classic, The Metamorphoses, written in Rome in the 1st century, a lonely sculptor by the name of Pygmalion sculpts a marble statue of a woman so beautiful that he falls in love with it.  Then, the statue miraculously comes to life—perfect in every detail—and they live happily ever after.  The theme was further developed by the only person to be awarded both the Nobel Prize and an Oscar, Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, in his 20th century play, Pygmalion, which inspired the movie classic, My Fair Lady.

Little did Ovid realize, almost 2,000 years ago, that this fantasy of his, creating what one viewed as perfection in someone else, would morph into what has become one of the most difficult things for a new manager to overcome—the acceptance of differences in others, or as former President Havel once said, “Accepting the otherness of others.”   At first, allowing others to be different sounds like a state of anarchy to the young manager.  They are comfortable and secure in what I call the Pygmalion syndrome—if you look and act like me, or like I think you should, you are predictable and that makes me feel better because I know how you will react to things and I can manage you.  

The Pygmalion Syndrome in management is the short-sighted belief that one can create the perfect work environment by personally micro-managing everything subordinates do, and how they do it, down to the smallest detail—process versus outcome—as opposed to setting guidelines and expectations and letting people use their own creativity to achieve the desired outcome.

Fortunately, the Pygmalion Syndrome, like adolescence, is a natural stage through which most pass before becoming seasoned managers and leaders.  Unfortunately, though, not all managers grow out of this stage.  Like Pygmalion, they are convinced that their direct oversight, intervention, control and micro-management down to the last detail is what creates the perfect outcome—their subordinates are simply  pieces of marble to be sculpted by their masterful hands. 

I will never forget two lessons I learned as a young manager that helped cure me of Pygmalion Syndrome. 

I had just been hired as the publisher (which was a big promotion for me) of a magazine that was in trouble financially.  On my first day, one of the major investors in the magazine called the staff together for a meeting to introduce me as their new boss.  I remember sitting in the room watching people come in for the meeting.  I especially remember noticing one person whom I didn’t care for at first sight because he wasn’t dressed well, his hair was uncombed and he was overweight—he didn’t “look” like me.  “If I have to let some people go, he will be one of the first out the door,” I remember thinking to myself as I shook his hand.  I met everyone and displayed what I thought was the right air of superiority as their new boss.  Quite impressed with myself in this new role, I thought the best way to express my authority was to require everyone to clear all decisions through me.

Within a month reality set in.  Before becoming publisher I was responsible for one function—sales.  But, as a publisher, I had several different functions reporting to me—my scope of responsibility was much broader.  I soon learned that if I was going to micro-manage each and every decision I wouldn’t have time to do anything else—like what I was hired to do: save the magazine.   My fear of failure soon over-rode my out-sized ego and need to be a micro-manager.  (Lesson number one: micro-managers can’t broaden their responsibilities.).  I knew I would have to set some guidelines and expectations and then just trust people to perform if I was going to succeed in taking the magazine to the next level.  People began to feel more creative and empowered by the fact that I trusted them to use their own judgment and wasn’t monitoring their every move.  A couple of folks didn’t work out and left the magazine, but a real sense of team began to come together—we all relied on each other—and a strange thing began to happen: the magazine not only did better financially, but we all had fun working together.

Oh, and the guy I was going to fire because he didn’t look like I wanted him to?  He became one of the most critically valuable team members and a good friend. (Lesson number two:  Leave the type-casting, Pygmalion Syndrome thinking, to sculptors and playwrights.  As with other cultures, people don’t have to be your clone to be smart, capable and fantastic performers.)

Good luck on your way up!


About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at www.pragueleadershipinstitute.com