Sometimes, of course, the answer is yes. Some employees are not up to their assigned tasks and never will be, for lack of knowledge, skill, or simple desire. By creating and reinforcing a dynamic that essentially sets up perceived underperformers to fail. If the Pygmalion effect describes the dynamic in which an individual lives up to great expectations, the set-up-to-fail syndrome explains the opposite. 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. The result is that they often end up leaving the organization—either of their own volition or not.
The first study, which comprised surveys, interviews, and observations, involved 50 boss-subordinate pairs in four manufacturing operations in Fortune companies. The second study, involving an informal survey of about senior managers attending INSEAD executive-development programs over the last three years, was done to test and refine the findings generated by the first study. The executives in the second study represented a wide diversity of nationalities, industries, and personal backgrounds.
The syndrome usually begins surreptitiously. The initial impetus can be performance related, such as when an employee loses a client, undershoots a target, or misses a deadline. Often, however, the trigger is less specific. An employee is transferred into a division with a lukewarm recommendation from a previous boss. He requires the employee to get approval before making decisions, asks to see 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 errors. Unfortunately, however, subordinates often interpret the heightened supervision as a lack of trust and confidence.keycopsurpcancons.ga/2597.php
The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome
In time, because of low expectations, they come to doubt their own thinking and ability, and they lose the motivation to make autonomous decisions or to take any action at all. The boss, they figure, will just question everything they do—or do it himself anyway. So what does the boss do? He increases his pressure and supervision again—watching, questioning, and double-checking everything the subordinate does.
Eventually, the subordinate gives up on his dreams of making a meaningful contribution. Boss and subordinate typically settle into a routine that is not really satisfactory but, aside from periodic clashes, is otherwise bearable for them. Perhaps the most daunting aspect of the set-up-to-fail syndrome is that it is self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing—it is the quintessential vicious circle. And on and on, unintentionally, the relationship spirals downward. A case in point is the story of Steve, a manufacturing supervisor for a Fortune company. When we first met Steve, he came across as highly motivated, energetic, and enterprising.
He was on top of his operation, monitoring problems and addressing them quickly. His boss expressed great confidence in him and gave him an excellent performance rating. In his new job, Steve reported to Jeff, who had just been promoted to a senior management position at the plant. In the first few weeks of the relationship, Jeff periodically asked Steve to write up short analyses of significant quality-control rejections.
Also, being new on the job himself, Jeff wanted to show his own boss that he was on top of the operation. Why, he wondered, should he submit reports on information he understood and monitored himself? Partly due to lack of time, partly in response to what he considered interference from his boss, Steve invested little energy in the reports. Their tardiness and below-average quality annoyed Jeff, who began to suspect that Steve was not a particularly proactive manager.
When he asked for the reports again, he was more forceful. For Steve, this merely confirmed that Jeff did not trust him.
He withdrew more and more from interaction with him, meeting his demands with increased passive resistance. One year after excitedly taking on the new production line, Steve was so dispirited he was thinking of quitting. How can managers break the set-up-to-fail syndrome? We said earlier that the set-up-to-fail syndrome usually starts surreptitiously—that is, it is a dynamic that usually creeps up on the boss and the subordinate until suddenly both of them realize that the relationship has gone sour.
But underlying the syndrome are several assumptions about weaker performers that bosses appear to accept uniformly.
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Our research shows, in fact, that executives typically compare weaker performers with stronger performers using the following descriptors:. It is not surprising that on the basis of these assumptions, bosses tend to treat weaker and stronger performers very differently. Members of the in-group are considered the trusted collaborators and therefore receive more autonomy, feedback, and expressions of confidence from their bosses.
The boss-subordinate relationship for this group is one of mutual trust and reciprocal influence. Members of the out-group, on the other hand, are regarded more as hired hands and are managed in a more formal, less personal way, with more emphasis on rules, policies, and authority. Why do managers categorize subordinates into either in-groups or out-groups?
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For the same reason that we tend to typecast our family, friends, and acquaintances: it makes life easier. Labeling is something we all do, 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. The downside of categorical thinking is that in organizations it leads to premature closure. For example, a manager might interpret a terrific new product idea from an out-group subordinate as a lucky onetime event.
Unfortunately for some subordinates, several studies show that bosses tend to make decisions about in-groups and out-groups even as early as five days into their relationships with employees. In fact, the bosses we have studied, regardless of nationality, company, or personal background, were usually quite conscious of behaving in a more controlling way with perceived weaker performers.
By and large, however, managers are aware of the controlling nature of their behavior toward perceived weaker performers. For them, this behavior is not an error in implementation; it is intentional. When the subordinate senses these low expectations, it can undermine his self-confidence. This is particularly problematic because numerous studies confirm that people perform up or down to the levels their bosses expect from them or, indeed, to the levels they expect from themselves.
I exert more control over my underperformers, but I make sure that it does not come across as a lack of trust or confidence in their ability.
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That is, we believe that they do try hard to disguise their intentions. When we talk to their subordinates, however, we find that these efforts are for the most part futile. All they have to do is compare how they are treated with how their more highly regarded colleagues are treated. The reason? When people perceive disapproval, criticism, or simply a lack of confidence and appreciation, they tend to shut down—a behavioral phenomenon that manifests itself in several ways.
Primarily, shutting down means disconnecting intellectually and emotionally. Subordinates simply stop giving their best.
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They grow tired of being overruled, and they lose the will to fight for their ideas. Shutting down also involves disengaging personally—essentially reducing contact with the boss. Partly, this disengagement is motivated by the nature of previous exchanges that have tended to be negative in tone.
Besides the risk of a negative reaction, perceived weaker performers are concerned with not tainting their images further. I should have kept my mouth closed. I do now. Finally, shutting down can mean becoming defensive. Many perceived underperformers start devoting more energy to self-justification. Anticipating that they will be personally 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.
Yet there are other costs to consider, some of them indirect and long term. The boss pays for the syndrome in several ways. It can be quite a strain to keep up a facade of courtesy and pretend everything is fine when both parties know it is not. The set-up-to-fail syndrome also has serious consequences for any team. A lack of faith in perceived weaker performers can tempt bosses to overload those whom they consider superior performers; bosses want to entrust critical assignments to those who can be counted on to deliver reliably and quickly and to those who will go beyond the call of duty because of their strong sense of shared fate.
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An increased workload may help perceived superior performers learn to manage their time better, especially as they start to delegate to their own subordinates more effectively. In many cases, however, these performers simply absorb the greater load and higher stress which, over time, takes a personal toll and decreases the attention they can devote to other dimensions of their jobs, particularly those yielding longer-term benefits.
In the worst-case scenario, overburdening strong performers can lead to burnout. Team spirit 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 common mission. One manager recalled the discomfort experienced by the whole team as they watched their boss grill one of their peers every week. If one member is suffering, the whole team feels that pain. In addition, 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 wasting their own time but also pulling their colleagues away from productive work.
Finally, the set-up-to-fail syndrome has consequences for the subordinates of the perceived weak performers. Consider the weakest kid in the school yard who gets pummeled by a bully. The abused child often goes home and pummels his smaller, weaker siblings. When they have to manage their own employees, they frequently replicate the behavior that their bosses show to them.
They fail to recognize good results or, more often, supervise their employees excessively. The set-up-to-fail syndrome is not irreversible. Subordinates can break out of it, but we have found that to be rare. The subordinate must consistently deliver such superior results that the boss is forced to change the employee from out-group to in-group status—a phenomenon made difficult by the context in which these subordinates operate.
It is hard for subordinates to impress their bosses when they must work on unchallenging tasks, with no autonomy and limited resources; it is also hard for them to persist and maintain high standards when they receive little encouragement from their bosses. Furthermore, even if the subordinate achieves better results, it may take some time for them to register with the boss because of his selective observation and recall.
Indeed, research shows that bosses tend to attribute the good things that happen to weaker performers to external factors rather than to their efforts and ability while the opposite is true for perceived high performers: successes tend to be seen as theirs, and failures tend to be attributed to external uncontrollable factors. The subordinate will therefore need to achieve a string of successes in order to have the boss even contemplate revising the initial categorization. Clearly, it takes a special kind of courage, self-confidence, competence, and persistence on the part of the subordinate to break out of the syndrome.
Instead, what often happens is that members of the out-group set excessively ambitious goals for themselves to impress the boss quickly and powerfully—promising to hit a deadline three weeks early, for instance, or attacking six projects at the same time, or simply attempting to handle a large problem without help.
Sadly, such superhuman efforts are usually just that. And in setting goals so high that they are bound to fail, the subordinates also come across as having had very poor judgment in the first place. The set-up-to-fail syndrome is not restricted to incompetent bosses. We have seen it happen to people perceived within their organizations to be excellent bosses. Their mismanagement of some subordinates need not prevent them from achieving success, particularly when they and the perceived superior performers achieve high levels of individual performance.
However, those bosses could be even more successful to the team, the organization, and themselves if they could break the syndrome. As a general rule, the first step in solving a problem is recognizing that one exists. This observation is especially relevant to the set-up-to-fail syndrome because of its self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing nature. It would be difficult—and indeed, detrimental—to provide a detailed script of what this kind of conversation should sound like.
A boss who rigidly plans for this conversation with a subordinate will not be able to engage in real dialogue with him, because real dialogue requires flexibility. As a guiding framework, however, we offer five components that characterize effective interventions. Although they are not strictly sequential steps, all five components should be part of these interventions.
Instead, simply explain that the job turned out to be different than you expected. I was hired to create written content, but it turns out that they really need someone with a heavy focus on graphic design. But in your case, it sounds like the bait-and-switch was about less about the job and more about deeply rooted cultural issues. In that case, you need to finesse the specifics a little more.
That can happen to anyone, and employers will understand that. Try to find opportunities during the hiring process to talk to other people who work there. Check LinkedIn to see if anyone in your network is connected to current or former employees who might be willing to talk to you. Got something to Ask a Boss? Send your questions to askaboss nymag. Already a subscriber? Log in or link your magazine subscription. Account Profile.
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