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The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail ..... and cause undue Stress

April 2003

No matter how hard some managers try, some of their performers never measure up. Despite hours of coaching, intensive follow up, and even extra attention, the performance of these employees fails to improve. Are they just poor selections? Not according to management experts Jean-François Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux. In their new book, The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail the authors explain how the blame often sits with the managers themselves, "the bosses from hell", who unwittingly sink an employee's chances for success by prematurely labelling him or her a "low achiever." This may well be a major contributory problem being experience by so many people who are suffering "stress at work".

Problem, what problem?

Based on ten years of research the book outlines why managers label and how dangerous these labels can be in creating employees who start to live down to expectations. Erroneous first impressions can become ingrained by a specific event such as a missed deadline, a lost client, or a bad presentation. Even an odd reaction to advice passed on by the boss can sow the seeds that an employee's performance needs monitoring. Alarmingly, Manzoni and Barsoux highlight that performance labels do not take years or even weeks to form but can be triggered within days.

Most bosses faced with a seemingly poor performer begin to pay extra attention to the employee's work. Deprived of elbow room the employee starts to feel frustrated and under-appreciated, often responding by reducing unnecessary contact with the boss. Thinking, mistakenly, that the subordinate's withdrawal confirms that s/he is indeed a weaker performer, the boss begins to increase his/her involvement in the employee's affairs. Progressively, the subordinate begins to doubt his/her own thinking and ability. This ugly cycle continues until a perfectly capable employee gives up any dream of making a meaningful contribution to the organisation. The employee has been successfully set up to fail.

Most subordinates do not give up without a fight but the boss's perceptual blinkers ensure that their efforts go unnoticed or else do not get the recognition they deserve. Also in their determination to prove the boss wrong, underrated subordinates may have to ignore instructions or advice and avoid contact with the boss in order to do things "their way" - and such behaviour can end up confirming the boss's view of them as "difficult" or "untrustworthy". Ultimately, frustrated subordinates stop fighting back constructively and start retaliating in ways that subtly provoke "unfair" or "unreasonable" reactions from the boss. The subordinate is essentially setting up the boss to fail. The ideal solution is of course to prevent the development of the vicious circle.

"Syndrome busters"

Managers whom Manzoni and Barsoux dub "syndrome busters" seem to work on several fronts to get more from their perceived weaker performers. They invest time and energy in the early stages of the relationship, to frame the contract with subordinates and build and develop personal relationships. They monitor their tendency to label subordinates or their actions hastily and incorrectly, and they invite subordinates to act as joint owners of the relationship. And because they have less preconceptions about weaker subordinates, they do not have to devote so much energy to monitoring and controlling their emotions. As a result, they have more bandwidth for listening and reacting productively during the interactions. Manzoni and Barsoux also discuss how managers can learn to develop these skills.

The cost of The Syndrome, say Manzoni and Barsoux, goes well beyond the lost productivity of a few individuals. It also threatens to derail careers, takes a heavy toll on morale, causes stress, and hampers overall organisational results.

From Pain to Gain

Managers must learn how to enter situations with an open mind, how to approach difficult conversations, and ultimately, how to stop the downward spiral in order to cure this syndrome. The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome outlines six concrete steps that can act as a guiding framework to help stop the downward spiral.

  1. Setting the stage. The boss should acknowledge the tension and admit some responsibility for problems in the employees' performance. Subordinates should feel free to discuss the boss's behaviour. Choosing an appropriate context and positioning the meeting well will help.
  2. Agreeing on the symptoms: both parties must identify the specific areas where they agree the subordinate has struggled.
  3. Diagnosing the causes: the boss and employee must jointly explore the causes of weak performance including how the boss's behaviour has affected performance.
  4. Finding the cure: both must agree on performance objectives and on specific actions to improve the relationship.
  5. Preventing relapse: the boss and the employee should pledge to address future problems earlier and open the door to more open communication.
  6. Monitoring the effectiveness of the treatment: beyond the initial discussions, both parties must hold periodic progress reviews.

While it is up to the boss to initiate these steps, the employee needs to be an active partner in the process.

Prevention beats Cure

The ideal solution is of course to prevent the development of the vicious circle. The result is two strong interlocked dynamics, and there is no way the situation will self-correct.

In an age where the responsibility of managers falls increasingly under scrutiny, this book provides managers with guidance and support to help maximise the contribution of all, while at the same time reducing the amount of pain in the workplace. The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome provides critical insights and solutions for managers and employees who are trapped in such a dynamic or want to avoid falling into it. Fascinating reading. Highly recommend as a "self-tuition manual". The book contains 18 pages of further reading and notes.

The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail
by Jean-François Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux.
Harvard Business School Press, 2002, 280pp, ISBN 0875849490