Set up to fail: How to do know if your boss does this to you

man with blue shirt is stressed and thinks he is set up for failure

You’ve stepped into a new role as a manager of a team. You have little to no familiarity with your team members, so you’ve reviewed previous performance reviews to get a sense of what you can expect from each of your new direct reports.

There’s one employee in particular you’re struggling with. His past performance appraisal was mediocre, and now you’re noticing that he lacks initiative. While the majority of your team is exceeding expectations, he seems content to achieve the bare minimum.  

You’re eager to get the best out of this employee, so you begin to watch him more closely. You dish out specific tasks and instructions. You check in with him frequently. You even put him on a formal performance improvement plan.

That should do the trick, right? But you watch in surprise as the opposite happens. That employee seems more disengaged than when you started, and the quality of his work continues to decline.

Huh? How could this be happening? You’re convinced that you put all of these measures in place to help him succeed. But in reality, that employee is only set up for failure.

Table of contents
Wait...what’s happening in set up for failure syndrome?
Breaking down the set up for failure syndrome
How to throw a wrench in this vicious cycle
Go out there and set your employees up for success

Wait...what’s happening in set up for failure syndrome?

All of this stems from something called set-up-to-fail syndrome or set up for failure syndrome. 

“It describes a dynamic in which employees perceived to be mediocre or weak performers live down to the low expectations their managers have for them,” explains Jean-Francois Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux in their research for Harvard Business Review.

Yep, that means you might share some of the blame here. As the manager, it can be hard to turn the magnifying glass on yourself. But, this scenario happens way more frequently than you might think. Here’s how it works: 

  • You notice that an employee misses a goal, makes a slip up, or anything else that makes you question their aptitude

  • You want to help that employee, so you keep a closer eye on them

  • The employee, who previously had a lot of autonomy, starts to doubt their own abilities when they realize they’re being watched more closely

  • With their self-doubt running rampant, the employee disengages from their work

  • In your eyes, that’s viewed as continued proof of their underperformance

  • You then keep an even closer eye on the employee and crack down even harder

...and then the whole cycle keeps repeating itself like one nasty self-fulfilling prophecy. 

If set up for failure syndrome continues for too long, your employee likely won’t stick around. Data from McKinsey found that 75% of employees say dealing with their immediate boss is the most stressful part of their job, and separate research states that 57% of workers have actually quit their jobs because of their manager. 

So, as much as you like to think you’re helping that employee get back on track, you’re really only creating a negative dynamic and sabotaging your relationship.

Breaking down the set up for failure syndrome

Yikes. It’s a pretty counterintuitive thought, right? But, what exactly is it that causes these tightened reins to send employees in the wrong direction? There are a couple of different elements at play here. 

1. You’re subconsciously categorizing your team members

As much as you like to think you’re open-minded, managers (often subconsciously) tend to sort their employees into two different buckets:

  • In group: These are the team members the manager deems competent and trustworthy. They’re given autonomy, praise, development and growth opportunities, and plenty of helpful one-on-one time with their leader. 
  • Out group: These are the team members the manager has placed on their mental “watch list.” They don’t reap any of those same benefits, and are watched closely by their manager. 

“Gasp!” you’re thinking now. “I don’t do this. I treat all of my employees equally, and I’d never categorize them this way.”

You might be surprised. Again, this often happens on a subconscious level and it’s something that nearly all leaders do. So much so, in fact, that it’s actually a designated stage (the role-making stage) in the Leader-Member Exchange Theory

2. You’re only seeing evidence that supports your assumptions 

Now that you’ve sorted your employees into these different categories, it’s human nature to only notice things that support your existing judgement of that team member.

It’s a real psychological concept called the confirmation bias. As Simply Psychology explains, this happens when people give “more weight to evidence that supports their beliefs and undervalues evidence that could disprove it.” 

As the old saying goes, you’ll find what you look for. So, if you already have your guard up and are on high alert for evidence that an employee is underperforming, you’re far more likely to see that—while the positive things they accomplish don’t even register. 

3. You’re decreasing motivation and engagement with micromanagement 

While you might think that cracking down on that employee will help them excel, that level of micromanagement is actually decreasing their performance.

It’s the concept of “choking under pressure.” Research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that employees who believe they’re being watched closely actually end up performing at a lower level. 

A separate study found that 71% of survey respondents said that being micromanaged interfered with their job performance, while 85% said their morale was negatively impacted. 

How to throw a wrench in this vicious cycle

It makes more sense now. When you sense that an employee is underperforming, you put more strict management practices in place. Your employee takes that as a sign of distrust and displeasure, so they disengage and their performance continues to suffer.

Now, here’s the big question you want to answer: How do you stop this cycle? 

Much like repairing any sort of relationship, there’s no quick fix. You’ll need to demonstrate a change in your attitude over a period of time. However, there are a few strategies that can help you make positive shifts right away.

1. Set clear expectations from the get-go

According to Gallup, more than half of employees admit that they don’t know what’s expected of them at work. While some of the responsibility falls to employees to ask questions when things aren’t clear, managers also need to ensure that they’re clearly outlining expectations.

The SMART goal framework can be helpful here. By using this acronym, you’ll lay out objectives for employees that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Once you’ve equipped them with the specifics of their tasks, responsibilities, and goals? Resist the urge to manage every step of the process and give them some autonomy to work the way they see fit.

2. Make yourself accessible to all of your team members

Avoiding micromanaging doesn’t mean that you never check in with your direct reports. After all, people all require different levels of management—some might prefer a supervisor who’s very hands-on, while others want one who only steps in when asked.

The best way to ensure everybody gets what they need is to maintain an open-door policy with your team. They can approach you for guidance when needed, which positions you as a resource (rather than a constant observer).

Keep in mind that simply opening your door doesn’t accomplish much. You need to behave accordingly, so that your team members know they can come to you without feeling like a burden. After all, 75% of employees say approachability is the most important quality in a manager, but only 50% say their manager is actually approachable.

3. Regularly solicit feedback about your management style

Feedback needs to be a two-way street. It’s not only your role as the leader to provide feedback to your employees, but to accept it from them as well.

Unfortunately, that communication channel isn’t quite as open as you’d like to think. A VitalSmarts survey found that 80% of employees think their boss has a significant weakness everybody recognizes and discusses covertly with one another, rather than directly with their manager.

One of the best ways to improve your leadership style (and prevent set up for failure syndrome) is to regularly check in with your employees to gather their insights—both positive and negative—about how you’re doing.

It can be helpful to collect this feedback via an anonymous survey, if you think your team members will be more comfortable providing candid answers without their names attached. 

4. Don’t forget the importance of praise

When you’re so focused on helping your team be the best it can be, it’s easy to get hung up on the corrections—you want to make them aware of all of the things that they could be doing better.

But, you can’t get so focused on opportunities for improvement that you forget about praise. Rewards and recognition are important for maintaining morale, creating psychological safety and showing your team members that you view them as competent and capable contributors.

In fact, 69% of employees said they’d work harder if their efforts were better appreciated. And, 58% of employees said recognition would help improve their level of engagement.

So, call out a big accomplishment in a team meeting or offer a hearty, “Great job!” to a team member when they’ve wrapped up a big project. Those seemingly small appreciation efforts can go a long way in maintaining a positive dynamic. 

Go out there and set your employees up for success

What happens when you notice that an employee is struggling? While you might like to picture yourself as the supportive and encouraging manager who builds them back up, set up for failure syndrome could mean that you’re only adding fuel to the fire.

Fortunately, there are ways that you can put an end to the self-fulfilling prophecy that occurs when employees feel distrusted and micromanaged. Use these tips, and you’ll foster a team culture that’s positive and productive.

One of the best ways to help your employees is to understand what motivates them at work, and Fingerprint for Success will get you the information you need. Start your team’s F4S assessment today

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