Pygmalion in (African) management

“A lady is a woman who is treated like a lady.” You remember probably this line from My Fair Lady. In a classic Harvard Business Review article, J. Sterling Livingston coined the expression “Pygmalion in management.” The main point of the article was that “a manager’s expectations are the key to a subordinate’s performance and development,” and the principle applies as much in Africa as it does anywhere else. The conversation I had with the Managing Director for Tanzania of a Kenyan company was illuminating in this respect:

A positive attitude is critical to success

“Every human being has a positive and negative side. For you to succeed, it’s very important to focus on the positive side of every person, particularly staff. Us having come from Kenya, we may think these people are lazy, they are unproductive, they can’t do this, they can’t… once you believe someone can’t do anything, they won’t do it because you won’t let them do it and so you fail yourself in the process. People say I’m very positive about Tanzania but I think it’s what you see at the end of the day. I chose to ignore the weaknesses of the people I work with because I want to leverage the strengths.

“Before you start, you talk to people who are already there. They tell you ‘people here wake up and they don’t want to come to work, and they are always sick, and giving excuses for not coming to work…’ But those are prejudices, and the moment you give people a reason to come to work early, they will come. My staff come early: by 7:00-7:30am everybody is in the office, and they are Tanzanians. They are in the market, they are not sitting in the office, they go out and look for customers. So even the Tanzanians themselves will come and ask, ‘What do you give to your staff? How come your staff are everywhere marketing? They are passionate.’ But it’s not what you give them: it’s how you treat them. You can’t say you’re doing a specific thing, it’s the whole thing… it’s about being positive.”

Any prejudices we should get rid of?

2 thoughts on “Pygmalion in (African) management

  1. This is so true, and is just as relevant to the academic environment as business.

    1. I agree, Beverly. And for many other areas, including family and social relationships, I would say.

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