The Michelangelo Phenomenon

Bringing Out the Best in One Another

“Because of you, I can feel myself slowly but surely
becoming the me I have always dreamed of being.”

- Tyler Knott Gregson
 

Although we may read the quote above and think it’s something only felt between the two main characters of a romance film, research has actually found this to be a true experience known as the Michelangelo Phenomenon. This model suggests that close partners bring out the best in each other through a process of promoting one another’s ideal self goals, sculpting one another’s selves and shaping one another into the best versions of themselves (Rusbult, Finkel, Kumashiro, 2009).

The fact is that we all have ideal selves, selves that embody dreams, aspirations, and characteristics we wish to acquire. In fact, it is these ideal selves that give us direction and propel our desire to grow in order to reach our potential and become who we have always dreamed of being (Rusbult et al., 2009). The process of reaching our aspirations is very relational in nature; in other words, interpersonal experiences and relationships support us in shaping ourselves such that we interact with others in ways that respond to our needs and expectations. Furthermore, when we affirm one another and move toward our ideal selves, evidence suggests that we experience greater levels of well-being, life satisfaction, and even psychological health. Additionally, with an ally in the process, we also experience greater levels of partner well-being, adjustment, and persistence.

Although the Michelangelo Phenomenon is most often associated with close partners, it can also be seen in the context of workplace relationships. Knowing that “growth striving is a primary human motive,” it is safe to say that even within the workplace, we are striving to grow, develop, and reach an ideal self - whether through acquiring a new skill-set or getting promoted to the C-suite level of the organization (Rusbult et al., 2009, p. 306). In this way, whether we’re CEOs, managers, subordinates, or teammates, there will always be an ideal we’re striving to achieve and someone who can support us in the process. At the same time, the person providing the support will also be striving for an ideal of their own. According to the Michelangelo Phenomenon, the process of achieving our goals and becoming our best selves can be optimized through the relationships we have at work with others.

So, what can you do to bring the Michelangelo Phenomenon to life?

  • First, think of someone with whom you have a positive relationship characterized by frequent interactions, trust, mutual dependency, and benevolence. You must understand not only each other's’ ideal selves and goal pursuits, but also each other's’ current selves, comprised of strengths and weaknesses.
  • Second, have a conversation about what possibilities are present, where you each see room for growth for yourselves and each other, and what pathways are present to reaching your ideal selves. This requires each of you to be open to giving and receiving feedback.
  • Third, affirm each other’s ideal selves by recognizing progress in goal achievement while also verifying each other’s actual selves and understanding what current characteristics each of you possesses that can be used to achieve your ideal self goals (Rusbult et al., 2009).

A professor once told me that as a manager, the most important conversation you can have with your employee is one in which you discuss what job they want next. As shocking as this thought initially was, I think it brings the Michelangelo Phenomenon to life by acknowledging the importance of knowing what the people around you are striving to achieve, who they are aspiring to be, and how you can support them in becoming who they’ve always dreamed of becoming. This not only shows your care and concern for the other person, but also shows that you are willing to provide opportunities for growth and development that each of us innately seek.

 

References

Rusbult, C. E., Finkel, E. J., & Kumashiro, M. (2009). The michelangelo phenomenon. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(6), 305-309.

Image by gnuckx