Everyone loses when employees are intentionally 'setup-to-fail' by incompetent management
Kevin William Grant
Published on
May 26, 2021

When an employee fails, the problem is often assumed to be the employee's fault—and the employee's responsibility. Some employees are not up to their assigned tasks or lack the knowledge, skill, or desire. But often, their manager is the root cause of an employee's poor performance.

Research strongly suggests that managers are often the reason for the lack of success of their subordinates. Managers inadvertently create and reinforce a dynamic that sets up perceived underperformers to fail.

The dynamic begins by perceiving the employee as a mediocre or weak performer. The result is that they often leave the organization—either of their own or after being forced out.

The Research

The setup-to-fail syndrome usually begins stealthily. The initial reason can be performance-related, such as when an employee loses a client, misses a target, or fumbles a deadline. The manager and the employee may not get along personally. Several studies have shown that compatibility between manager and subordinate, based on similarity of attitudes, values, or social characteristics, can significantly impact a manager's impressions.

The setup-to-fail syndrome is put into motion when the manager begins to worry that the employee's performance is not up to par. The manager then takes what seems like the obvious action because of the subordinate's perceived shortcomings. The manager increases the time and attention he focuses on the employee. He requires the employee to receive approval before making decisions, asks to review more paperwork documenting those decisions, or watches the employee at meetings more closely and critiques his comments more intensely.

These actions are intended to boost performance and prevent the subordinate from making mistakes. Unfortunately, colleagues often interpret the heightened supervision as a lack of trust and confidence. In time, because of low expectations, the subordinate begins to doubt their thinking and ability, and they lose the motivation to make autonomous decisions or take any action at all. The employee believes their manager will question everything they do—or do it himself.

Ironically, the manager views the subordinate's withdrawal as proof that they are a poor performer. The subordinate, after all, isn't contributing his ideas or energy to the organization. So what does the manager do? He increases the pressure and ramps up the supervision—watching, questioning, and double-checking everything the subordinate does.

Eventually, the subordinate gives up on their dreams of making a meaningful contribution to the organization. The manager and subordinate typically settle into a "not very satisfactory" routine that's bearable, aside from periodic clashes. In the worst-case scenario, the manager's intense intervention and scrutiny paralyze the employee into inaction and consume so much of the manager's time that the employee quits or is fired.

The most puzzling aspect of the set-up-to-fail syndrome is that it is self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing—it is a vicious circle. The process is self-fulfilling because the manager's actions contribute to the specific behaviours they expect from weak performers. The syndrome is self-reinforcing because the manager's low expectations, which his subordinates fulfill, trigger more of the same behaviour, which begins more of the same behaviour from the subordinate. The relationship spirals downward.

Being Set-Up-To-Fail

The set-up-to-fail syndrome usually starts clandestinely. It is a dynamic that usually creeps up on the manager and the subordinate until abruptly both realize that the relationship has gone sour. Underlying the syndrome are several assumptions about weaker performers that managers appear to accept consistently. Executives typically compare weaker performers with stronger performers using the following descriptors:

  • Less motivated, less energetic, and less likely to go beyond the call of duty;
  • More passive when it comes to taking charge of problems or projects;
  • Less aggressive about anticipating issues;
  • Less innovative and less likely to suggest ideas;
  • More parochial in their vision and strategic perspective;
  • More prone to hoard information and assert their authority, making them poor managers to their subordinates.

Up to 90% of all managers treat some subordinates as part of an "in-group" while relegating others to an "out-group." Managers tend to treat weaker and stronger performers very differently.

Members of the "in-group" are considered the trusted collaborators and receive more autonomy, feedback, and expressions of confidence from their managers. The manager-subordinate relationship for this group is one of mutual trust and reciprocal influence. On the other hand, they manage members of the "out-group" more formally, less personally, emphasizing rules, policies, and authority. That is no way for anyone to exist at work. It's the equivalent of being in a psychological and social prison.

Labelling is something all humans engage in because it allows us to function more efficiently. It saves time by providing "rough-and-ready" guides for interpreting events and interacting with others. Managers, for instance, use categorical thinking to figure out quickly who should get what tasks.

Categorical thinking within organizations leads to premature closure. Once the manager has made up her mind about a subordinate's limited ability and lacks motivation, a manager is likely to notice supporting evidence while dismissing contrary evidence. Unfortunately for some subordinates, several studies show managers tend to make decisions about "in-groups" and "out-groups" even as early as five days into their relationships with employees.

Managers typically do not realize that their tight controls end up hurting subordinates' performance by undermining their motivation in two ways: first, by depriving them of autonomy on the job and, second, by making them feel undervalued. Tight controls are an indication that the manager assumes the subordinate can't perform well without strict guidelines. When the subordinate senses these low expectations, it can undermine their self-confidence.

Research shows that most employees can—and do—" read their manager's mind." In particular, they know whether they fit into their manager's "in-group" or "out-group." They have to compare how they are treated with how their more highly regarded colleagues are treated. When people perceive disapproval, criticism, or simply a lack of confidence and appreciation, they tend to shut down.

Fundamentally, shutting down means disconnecting intellectually and emotionally. Subordinates stop giving their best. They grow tired of being overruled, and they lose the will to fight for their ideas and engage in a meaningful way at work.

Shutting down involves disengaging personally—essentially reducing contact with the manager. This disengagement is partially motivated by the quality of previous exchanges that have tended to be negative in tone.

Besides the risk of an adverse reaction, perceived weaker performers are concerned with not contaminating their images further. They avoid asking for help for fear of further exposing their limitations. They tend to volunteer less information—a simple "heads up" from a perceived under-performer can cause the manager to overreact and jump into action when none is required.

Finally, shutting down can mean becoming defensive. Many perceived underperformers start devoting more energy to self-justification. Anticipating that they will be blamed for failures, they seek to find excuses early. They end up spending a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror and less time looking at the road ahead.

The Impacts

There are seven apparent costs of the set-up-to-fail syndrome:

  1. The subordinate pays a high emotional cost, and there is a financial hit to the organization associated with the company's failure to get the best out of an employee.
  2. The manager pays for the syndrome in several ways. First, uneasy relationships with perceived low performers often drain the manager's emotional and physical energy. It can be exhausting to keep up a facade of courtesy and pretend everything is fine when both parties know it is not.
  3. The energy devoted to fixing these relationships or improving the subordinate's performance through increased supervision prevents the manager from attending to other activities, which often frustrates or even angers the manager.
  4. Furthermore, the syndrome can take a toll on the manager's reputation, as other employees in the organization observe her behaviour toward perceived "weaker performers." If the manager's treatment of a subordinate is deemed unfair or unsupportive, observers will quickly draw their lessons.
  5. The set-up-to-fail syndrome also has severe consequences for any team. In the worst-case scenario, overburdening strong performers can lead to burnout.
  6. Team morale can also suffer from the progressive alienation of one or more perceived low performers. Great teams share a sense of enthusiasm and commitment to a joint mission. Even when members of the manager's "out-group" try to keep their pain to themselves, other team members feel the strain. One manager recalled the discomfort experienced by the whole team as they watched their manager grill one of their peers every week.
  7. Alienated subordinates often do not keep their suffering to themselves. In the corridors or over lunch, they seek out sympathetic ears to vent their recriminations and complaints, not only to waste their own time but also to pull their colleagues away from productive work. Instead of focusing on the team's mission, valuable time and energy is diverted to the discussion of internal politics and dynamics.

Breaking the Pattern

The set-up-to-fail syndrome is not unchangeable. Subordinates can break out of it, but it's infrequent. The subordinate must consistently deliver such "superior results" that the manager is forced to change the employee from "out-group" to "in-group" status. It is hard for subordinates to impress their managers when they must work on unchallenging tasks with no autonomy and limited resources. They can't persist and maintain high standards when they receive little encouragement from their managers.

Furthermore, even if the subordinate achieves better results, it may take time to be acknowledged by the manager because of selective observations and recall.

Research demonstrates that managers tend to attribute the good things weaker performers achieve to external factors rather than their efforts and ability. Therefore, the subordinate will need to perform a string of successes to have the manager even contemplate revising the initial categorization.

It takes a rare form of courage, self-confidence, competence, and persistence on the part of the subordinate to break out of the syndrome.

Members of the "out-group" set excessively ambitious goals for themselves to impress the manager quickly and powerfully. They make the mistake of putting their goals so high that they fail.

The Trap

Face-to-face discussions about a subordinate's performance tend to come high on the list of workplace situations people would rather avoid because such conversations have the potential to make both parties feel threatened or embarrassed. Subordinates are reluctant to trigger the discussion because they are worried about coming across as thin-skinned or whiny. Managers tend to avoid initiating these talks because they are concerned about how the subordinate might react.

There is always the possibility that the discussion could force the manager to make explicit her lack of confidence in their subordinate. Poor communication will put the subordinate on the defensive and making the situation worse.

As a result, managers who observe the dynamics of the set-up-to-fail syndrome may avoid an explicit discussion with the subordinate. Instead, they will move forward by trying to encourage their perceived weak performers. That approach has the short-term benefit of bypassing the discomfort of an open discussion, but it has three significant disadvantages.

  1. First, a one-sided approach on the part of the manager is less likely to lead to lasting improvement because it focuses on only one symptom of the problem—the subordinate's behaviour. It does not address the manager's role in the underperformance.
  2. Second, even if the manager's encouragement successfully improved the employee's performance, a unilateral approach would limit what he and the subordinate could otherwise learn from more up-front handling of the problem. The subordinate, in particular, would not have the benefit of observing and learning from how her manager handled the difficulties in their relationship—issues the subordinate may come across someday with the people he manages.
  3. Finally, managers trying to modify their behaviour unilaterally often end up going overboard; they suddenly give the subordinate more autonomy and responsibility than he can handle productively. Predictably, the subordinate fails to deliver to the manager's satisfaction, which leaves the manager even more frustrated and convinced that the subordinate cannot function without intense supervision.

Sometimes, intervention is not possible or desirable. There may be overwhelming evidence that the subordinate is not capable of performing their job. They were a hiring or promotion mistake, which is typically handled by removing the subordinate from their position. In other cases, the relationship between the manager and the subordinate is too far gone—too much damage has occurred to repair it.

Finally, sometimes managers are too busy and under too much pressure to invest in an intervention. The biggest obstacle to effective intervention is the manager's mindset. When a manager believes that a subordinate is a weak performer and, on top of everything else, that person also aggravates him, he will not cover up his feelings with words; her underlying convictions will come out in the meeting.

End the Cycle

The set-up-to-fail syndrome is not an organization's ultimate endpoint.

  1. The first step is for the manager to become aware of its existence and acknowledge the possibility that he might be part of the problem.
  2. The second step requires that the manager initiates a direct, focused discussion.
  3. Reversing the syndrome requires managers to challenge their assumptions. It also demands that they dare to look within themselves for causes and solutions before placing the burden of responsibility where it does not fully belong -- the target of their abuse.
  4. Prevention of the syndrome, however, is the best option. Managers avoid the set-up-to-fail syndrome by creating an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their performance and their relationships with the manager. This approach takes courage and skill, which is often lacking in many promoted managers.

The healthy goal for all skilled managers is to make their subordinates feel free to communicate frequently and ask one another questions about their behaviours. Sadly, this rarely happens and is an unfortunate reality of the modern workplace. You have to wonder how many talented people an organization loses because managers lack the core skills needed to manage competent employees.

Once an individual is setup-to-fail, they leave or get fired, and the cycle continues. Rinse and repeat.