American inventor Charles F. Kettering said, “High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.”

The Pygmalion effect essentially posits that the greater the expectations that are placed on a person, the better he or she performs. The syndrome is named after the well-known 1912 play written by George Bernard Shaw.

In 1968, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted a seminal study that tested whether the Pygmalion effect is borne out in the classroom. They found, among other things, that it did. When teachers were led to expect superior performance from some students, those selected students, for the most part, performed better than their peers.

Just one year later, J. Sterling Livingston, a professor at the Harvard Business School, wrote a compelling article in Harvard Business Review, “Pygmalion in Management,” which offered a critical assessment of how this principle translated to the world of business. I reread Livingston’s article recently and was astounded as to how applicable it is today to the firms and companies in which lawyers operate, even though more than 40 years have elapsed since it was penned. I will briefly review the fundamental findings in the article and will offer some thoughts as to how these can be utilized today.

Livingston discussed a study that had been conducted of selected Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. agencies and certain of its managers and agents. In the study, three groups were formed: one consisted of six top agents and an agency’s best assistant manager; the second was composed of average performers and a middle-of-the-road manager; and the third had the lowest performing agents and the least capable manager.

As expected, the top group produced the best results. However, the surprising revelation was that this team far surpassed even the most optimistic projections. The members of the group were referred to as the “superior” team throughout the study and the agents embodied that moniker. Their outsize results strongly suggested that there was a catalyzing effect that occurred when teaming star employees with a strong manager. The lower group not only did poorly, but their performance actually declined as compared to prior performance. Attrition also increased in that group following the completion of the study.

Interestingly, although the average group did not come close to matching the performance of the “superior” team, it did much better than anticipated. This was attributed to the stewardship of its leader, who, despite being viewed as an “average” manager going into the study, demonstrated unexpected, and quite impressive, leadership capabilities. This manager did not regard himself as average and conveyed the same message to his team. He convinced the team that they could excel and they responded by producing outstanding results.

The study thus served as corroboration of the “self-fulfilling prophecy” tenet on which the Pygmalion effect is based. There were three other major findings.

First, there were some fundamental reasons why certain managers were able to drive top performance, while others could not. The best managers had the following characteristics: they believed in themselves, which then led their subordinates to follow them; they communicated well (and often); and were action-oriented. Conversely, the poor managers did not communicate well and did not convey positive messages.

As proof of the importance of management, Livingston cited one group of star performers who were teamed with a “stolid, phlegmatic manager.” Despite the skills of this team of stars, they did not soar to expected heights as this unremarkable manager helped to curb their performance with her mediocre management skills.

Significantly, there was a tendency, especially among the lowest performing managers, not to communicate at all or to generally be indifferent. Livingston opined that indifference was viewed by subordinates as worse than receiving a tongue lashing from their bosses. This impact was telling, as the lowest performing subordinates became much more risk-averse and were paralyzed by inaction, as they were afraid of failing.

Second, with respect to setting expectations, it is much more nuanced than just engaging in positive thinking. Livingston reported that employees responded well to managers who worked with them to set realistic and achievable goals that stretched them. When unrealistic, “pie-in-the-sky” expectations were established, this hurt performance, as the employees knew they couldn’t be reached. Similarly, if the employees were given relatively easy, “slam dunk” expectations, this also de-motivated them.

Third, the management that one experiences in his or her early years is crucial, as it has a profound effect, not only on performance then, but over the course of a career. The first boss who someone has seems to have a disproportionate impact on one’s career. Some of the most talented new employees, who entered an organization with strong credentials, were often dragged down by working for low-performing or even average managers. That exposure tended to diminish the self-esteem of the new employees and they did not succeed to expected levels.

As to this latter point, Livingston noted that many organizations often link new employees to subpar managers who are ill-equipped to lead. This occurs because often the strongest managers are working with midlevel and more senior staff and thus spend little time with a firm’s newest employees. This can cause significant problems, as it dampens performance, especially from those who have the capability to excel and can lead to their disillusionment and eventual attrition in their ranks.

So, what does this mean for law firms and corporate law departments? I offer these four recommendations based on Livingston’s findings.

First, do not be afraid to create “super teams,” whether they are formed to work on a case (or deal), to pursue new business, or complete some other mission-critical project. This normally would be taboo, as lawyers do not like to be separated from their peers and especially eschew classifications that suggest that one group is stronger than another. However, one of the unexpected benefits of the most recent recession is that it has helped to shatter that paradigm, especially as it relates to younger lawyers. Performance has always mattered, but in this economic climate, it is even more important. If putting a team of star performers will have a disproportionate, positive impact on revenue or some other key objective, there should be less concern now about offending others.

A firm or company can still keep average performers motivated, and happy, by allowing them to work with strong managers. So, if an organization is deep enough, it hopefully will not have fully depleted its reservoir of strong managers and can divert a few to work with the aforementioned “super teams.”

Second, heed Livingston’s advice of being much more careful in assigning managers and mentors to your youngest lawyers. In some law firms, this role is, by default, given to midlevel/senior associates, young partners, or middle-of-the-road performing partners, solely because they have the time or work most closely with those young lawyers. Although there certainly are some lawyers who are innately good at managing, many attorneys, especially in the groups just noted, have little management training and often are ill-equipped to lead. Putting them together with incoming lawyers who need strong management, for all the reasons noted by Livingston, can be devastating.

Third, although Livingston did not study what happened to lateral lawyers who join a law firm or corporate legal department, one could surmise that their first year in a new organization is just as pivotal to them as it is with a new attorney. Consequently, aligning laterals with strong mentors and gifted managers who can help them integrate well should similarly help to increase the odds that they will perform at or above expectations and should forestall attrition among them.

Finally, remember that establishing and managing expectations flows throughout an organization — it is not just the responsibility of the top person. While a CEO/managing partner and general counsel may establish goals for the entire organization, other expectations are set for departments, practice groups, individual lawyers and supporting staff by multiple people throughout an organization. As such, each person in a firm or company needs to be invested in the process and should be taught about the importance of how goals should be set, the communication that is required in managing them, and the teamwork that is necessary in striving to meet or surpass those objectives. •

Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at fdamore@attycareers.com.