When picturing effective leadership, images of transformative leaders arise. Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, and hopefully, your favorite high school teacher had the ability to inspire outstanding performance. However, the paradox of leader-follower relationships, is that your team will only get as good results as you believe they’re able to get.

In one of the largest meta-analytical studies of leadership interventions to date, Avolio and his colleagues (2009) found that the belief that your followers are able to do great things is the best predictor of leadership outcomes, compared to other leadership theories used in the analysis. This so called “Pygmalion leadership” (after the “Pygmalion effect“, i.e. when high expectations lead to high performance) proved to be extremely effective in increasing the performance of followers.

There is one important caveat: as a study included in Avolio et al. (2009) analysis suggests, the leaders only get their results if they REALLY believed in the ability of the followers, and not only acted like they did. It is suggested that this is due to demotivating nonverbal cues that leaders might give when not really believing what they say.

Believing in your team might make them more effective – but only if the belief is genuine.