When an employee fails, managers typically don't blame themselves. But in-depth studies of more than 900 executives found that many leaders unknowingly set their employees up for failure. IT'S A FAMILIAR TALE: You have a direct report whose work you think isn't up to par. You start watching him closely and giving him very specific instructions… but his work keeps deteriorating. You assume the problem is him-- he probably has a bad attitude or lacks the necessary skills. But there's another possibility.
Unknowingly, you may have created a negative dynamic in which he is living down to your low expectations. This is a classic vicious circle. The set-up-to-fail syndrome often creeps up on managers. You start with a positive relationship, but something-- a missed deadline, or maybe a lukewarm review from a previous boss-- makes you question the employee. You limit his discretion and begin watching him closely. Sensing your lack of confidence, he starts doubting himself, withdraws, and stops doing his best.
Consider what happened to Kiyoshi, who was chosen to lead a key production line at his company. His new boss, Mona, asked him to regularly write up analyses of quality-control rejections. Kiyoshi didn't see the need for reports on information he understood and monitored himself, so he didn't put any effort into them and submitted them late. Mona was annoyed and began to ask for the reports more forcefully.
Feeling that she distrusted him, Kiyoshi started to withdraw and became passive. Soon Mona was supervising his every move, and he was ready to quit. Mona could have simply let Kiyoshi quit, or even fired him. But given that he had once been considered an excellent performer, wouldn't it be better to find a way to reverse this toxic dynamic and get him back on track? First, let's look at why the set-up-to-fail syndrome happens and what its effects are. The syndrome is fairly common. In their studies, the authors found that it happens even with people who are perceived to be excellent bosses.
How can that be? Research shows that the vast majority of managers mentally sort their subordinates into “in” and “out” groups. And they approach these two groups very differently, even when their intentions are good. Members of the in crowd are treated with trust and respect and get more autonomy and praise. Bosses also interact with them in a personal and collegial way. Members of the out group are regarded as hired hands and managed in a more formal way, with greater emphasis on rules, policy, and authority.
Categorizing employees this way makes it much easier for managers to parcel out tasks-- the challenging assignments go to people in the “in “group, and the routine ones get divvied up among the “out” group. The danger is, managers tend to make up their minds prematurely --often within just 5 days. And from then on, they selectively notice evidence that supports their opinion and dismiss evidence that contradicts it. For example, they might interpret a terrific new-product idea from someone who's in the out group as just a lucky onetime event.
You might be wondering, “What's so bad about closely managing reports?” Well, it can hurt motivation in two ways: by depriving employees of autonomy, and by making them feel undervalued. And if employees sense disapproval, criticism, or lack of confidence, they tend to shut down. They stop offering ideas. They become disengaged from their manager and from their job. They no longer ask for help or volunteer information. The set-up-to-fail syndrome also has serious repercussions for the other people on your team--not just the “problem employee.”
You may start to steer more work to the team members you think are strong performers, and stress them out. The troubled relationship can take a toll on your reputation, too, if other reports perceive that you're being unfair to or unsupportive of one of their peers. Sometimes an employee can break this pattern by delivering great results that change the manager's mind. But that happens pretty rarely.
Most of the time, the syndrome won't end until the manager understands the self-fulfilling dynamic and acknowledges that she is probably contributing to the employee's poor performance. Recognizing the problem is the first step. The next is more difficult: carefully planning a series of candid conversations that will bring the relationship's underlying issues to the surface. Unfortunately, there's no script for what these conversations should sound like, but there are some guidelines.
First, the boss should select a nonthreatening time and place for meetings. It's important not to position these sessions as “feedback,” because that seems one-sided. Instead, managers should say they genuinely wish to have a dialogue about the tension in the relationship. In particular, they should acknowledge that their own behavior may be partly to blame. Second, boss and employee need to arrive at a mutual understanding of the symptoms of the problem. They need to pinpoint the particular areas of underperformers that are causing the tension.
After all, few employees fall short on all their responsibilities. For instance, with Kiyoshi and Mona, the key issue was the quality reports. In her intervention, Mona needs to give Kiyoshi factual evidence of the problem and not simply say, “I have the feeling that you're not putting enough energy into these.” Mona should describe what a good report looks like and why Kiyoshi's don't measure up. And she should give him a chance to defend his performance, compare it with that of other colleagues, and point out where he is strong.
Once the problem areas are identified, it's time to examine the reasons for the weaknesses. Does the employee need better organizational skills, or is he lacking knowledge? Does he have trouble handling pressure? Do he and the boss agree on priorities? The boss also needs to raise the subject of her own behavior and how it might be making things worse.
Here, it's key to unearth the assumptions that boss and employee have been making about each other's intentions. For example, Mona might tell Kiyoshi, “When you didn't supply the reports I asked for, I concluded that you weren't proactive.” And Kiyoshi might say, “Asking for the reports in writing seemed overly controlling to me.”
Once both parties agree on the causes of the friction, they can map out ways to address it. They should think about how to fill any gaps in skills and knowledge and what supervision will be provided going forward. Note that it's more than OK for the boss to monitor the employee's work. But it needs to be clear that the goal is development and that supervision will decrease as performance improves.
Last, manager and employee need to agree to be more open with each other in the future. The boss should invite the employee to call her out whenever she's communicating low expectations. And conversely, the employee should ask to be alerted if he's doing anything that's irritating or that the boss doesn't understand. Those simple requests can open the door to a more honest relationship. As a boss, you may be tempted to avoid these conversations and try to fix the problem just by giving the employee more encouragement.
But that doesn't address the employee's role in underperformance. It limits the learning that both parties could achieve. And sometimes managers go overboard, giving employees more autonomy than they're ready for. These discussions are never easy, but some prep work will make them go more smoothly. Beforehand, the boss must separate emotion from reality, asking, “Was the situation always this poor? What's the evidence that the employee is really that bad? What has he done well? How might he defend himself?” It's easier for the boss to be open to the employee's views if she's already challenged her own preconceptions.
The results of interventions are almost always preferable to continued underperformance and tension. But they vary. In the best cases, the air is cleared, coaching and job redesign improve the employee's performance, and the relationship gets back on track. Sometimes the employee improves only marginally, but because he and the boss have a strong understanding, they can modify the job to fit him better-- or find him a new job. Sometimes, the outcome may be the employee's departure. That can still be productive: it alleviates the strain and allows someone who is better suited to come into the role.
Having been treated fairly, the employee is more likely to accept the outcome of the process-- and so are the other people on your team. So it is possible to reverse the set-up-to-fail syndrome. But it's even better not to let it develop in the first place. In their research, the authors found that managers who steered clear of this syndrome shared certain traits. They were very involved with all their reports from the start, gradually reducing guidance as performance improved.
They created environments where employees felt comfortable discussing both relationships with their manager and performance. They regularly challenged their own attitudes, asking, for instance, whether they were expecting things from their reports that hadn't been clearly articulated. Mona, for instance, never made it clear to Kiyoshi that her overall goal was to set up a system for analyzing the causes of quality rejects. She could have laid out the benefits of that system, and then agreed with Kiyoshi to dial back her involvement once it was up and running.
But instead she left him guessing. Like interventions, heading off the syndrome requires bosses to really engage with employees. But if a manager still slips into it, there is always a way out, provided the manager has the awareness to recognize it, the courage to acknowledge being part of it, and the willingness to initiate a conversation about the causes and the solutions in a factual and collaborative way.
That level of involvement is critical to helping employees reach their full potential. If you want the people in your organization to devote their hearts and minds to their work, then you must do the same.