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The set-up-to-fail syndrome

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Abstract

Why do some employees perform poorly? Most managers would answer that question by ticking off a list that includes weak skills, insufficient experience, inability to prioritize assignments, and lack of motivation. In other words, they would contend that poor performance is the employee's fault. But is it? Not always, according to the authors. Their research with hundreds of executives strongly suggests that it is the bosses themselves--albeit unintentionally--who are frequently responsible for an employee's subpar achievement. According to the authors, bosses and their perceived weak performers are often caught in a dynamic called the set-up-to-fail syndrome, which tends to play out as follows: A boss begins to worry when a subordinate's performance is not satisfactory. He then takes what seems like the obvious action by increasing the time and attention he focuses on the employee. But rather than improve the subordinate's performance, the increased supervision has the reverse effect. The subordinate, in perceiving the boss's lack of confidence in him, withdraws from his work and from the boss. And the relationship spirals downward. What is a boss to do? First, he must accept the possibility that his own behavior could be contributing to the problem. Second, he must plan a careful intervention with the subordinate that takes the form of one or several candid conversations meant to untangle the unhealthy dynamics in the relationship. The intervention is never easy, but the time and energy invested in it usually yields a high payback.
The
Set-Up-to-Fail
Syndrome
How Good Managers Cause
Great People to Fail
Jean-François Manzoni
Jean-Louis Barsoux
HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL PRESS
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS
Copyright 2002 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
06 05 04 03 02 54321
Requests for permission to use or reproduce material from this book
should be directed to permissions@hbsp.harvard.edu, or mailed to
Permissions, Harvard Business School Publishing, 60 Harvard Way,
Boston, Massachusetts 02163.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Manzoni, J. F. (Jean-François)
The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome : how good managers cause great people
to fail / Jean-François Manzoni, Jean-Louis Barsoux.
p. cm.
“In March-April 1998 we published an article in The Harvard Business
Review entitled ‘The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome : how bosses create their
own poor performers.’
Includes index.
ISBN 0-87584-949-0 (alk. paper)
1. Supervision of employees. 2. Problem employees. I. Barsoux,
Jean-Louis. II. Harvard business review. March–April 1998 (Supplement)
III. Title.
HF5549.12 .M354 2002
658.3'15—dc21
2002002904
The paper used in this publication meets the requirements of the
American National Standard for Permanence of Paper for Publications and
Documents in Libraries and Archives Z39.48-1992.
Preface ix
Acknowledgments xiii
1 The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome 1
2 When Common Sense Fails Us 17
3 Set-Up-to-Fail: A Vicious Cycle 45
4 Labels, Biases, and Misperceptions 67
5 Colluding to Collide 87
6 The Cost Iceberg 113
7 Blinders of Our Own Making 135
8 Cracking the Syndrome 161
9 Preventing the Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome:
Lessons from the “Syndrome Busters”
197
10 Getting There 221
Notes 251
Index
271
About the Authors 279
Contents
The greatest blunders, like the thickest ropes, are often com-
pounded of a multitude of strands. Take the rope apart, sep-
arate it into the small threads that compose it, and you can
break them one by one. You think, “That is all there was!” But
twist them all together and you have something tremendous.
—Victor Hugo
Problem, What Problem?
When an employee fails—or even just performs poorly—managers
typically place the blame outside themselves. The employee doesn’t
understand the work, a manager might contend; or the employee
isn’t driven to succeed, can’t prioritize assignments, or won’t take
direction. Whatever the reason, the boss often assumes that the
problem is the employee’s fault—and therefore, the employee’s
responsibility.
But is it? The answer, of course, is sometimes yes. Some employ-
ees are not up to their assigned tasks, and never will be, owing to
lack of knowledge, skill, or simple desire. But sometimes—and we
would go so far as to say often—an employee’s poor performance can
be blamed largely on his or her boss.
Perhaps blamed is too strong a word, but it is directionally
correct. In fact, our research strongly suggests that bosses—albeit
1
1
The Set-Up-to-Fail
Syndrome
accidentally and usually with the best intentions—are often com-
plicit in an employee’s lack of success. How? By creating and rein-
forcing a dynamic that essentially sets up perceived weaker per-
formers to fail. We call this the Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome. It describes
a dynamic in which capable employees who are mistaken for
mediocre or weak performers live down to low expectations, and
often end up out of the organization—of their own volition or not.
In our experience, most bosses have contributed to such a
dynamic at one time or another. Our aim, therefore, is to unravel
the multiple biases, blinders, and misperceptions—on both sides of
the relationship—that fuel this degenerative process. By illuminat-
ing the mechanisms involved, we will provide the necessary plat-
form to interrupt these downward spirals and, ultimately, to prevent
them from taking hold.
This book is about leadership, not the grand, intellectual side of
leadership as exercised by those at the apex of organizations. We
don’t deal with fancy concepts such as industry dynamics, corpo-
rate transformation, or the creation of sustainable competitive ad-
vantage through strategic positioning. Instead we dissect the every-
day, interactive, human side of leadership. This is a leadership book
for the masses, for all those with one or more employees reporting
to them. It is about leadership in the sense of mobilizing the people on
one’s team.
Mobilizing subordinates is certainly not the only dimension
of a leader’s job, but it is the defining feature and it does absorb
the lion’s share of a leader’s time and energy. It is a challenge
that has the same resonance for chief executive officers as it
does for the heads of business units, project groups, or task forces.
The way bosses interact with their immediate team has a huge
impact on how their leadership influence cascades. It is therefore
a key driver of results. But it is also a major generator of stress and
frustration.
Before exploring boss-subordinate relationships in more detail,
let’s agree on some terminology. Many of our colleagues make a
clear and fundamental distinction between “managers” and “lead-
ers.” Managers, they claim, perform optimally within an existing
frame, whereas leaders create a new frame. John Kotter, for example,
tells us that “management is about coping with complexity. . . .
2
THE SET-UP-TO-FAIL SYNDROME
Leadership is about coping with change.”
1
Warren Bennis likes to
say that “a good manager does things right. A leader does the right
things.”
2
We recognize those differences, but in light of the aspect
of leadership we focus on in this book—the interpersonal and exe-
cution part of the job that is common to both roles—this distinc-
tion is not as critical. Managers and leaders have direct subordinates
whom they need to mobilize. We will therefore refer to them inter-
changeably as bosses, managers, and leaders.
We also had to choose a term to refer to the people working for
these bosses. We could call them “subordinates,” “employees,” or
“associates.” Employees risks leading readers to think in terms of
blue- and white-collar workers rather than managers, the type of
subordinates we mainly studied. Associates describes employees in
some companies but “peers” in others, and fails to highlight the
position of power that bosses—even in the most empowering organ-
izations—have over the people who report to them. As a result and
although the term is a bit old-fashioned, we chose to mainly use the
word “subordinate” to refer to the people who report to, and whose
performance is evaluated by, their boss.
Last but not least, a clarification on the use of genders: When
speaking about real managers we obviously refer to them using their
actual gender. When speaking about bosses and subordinates in gen-
eral, we used the plural form or alternated the use of “he” and “she.”
We may not have succeeded perfectly, but we did try!
Walking a Tightrope:
Concern with Results versus Concern with People
Meeting the numbers has always been a priority for managers, but
in recent years managers have been increasingly held to their com-
mitments. With ever more powerful and impatient capital markets
quickly sanctioning underperforming companies, managers are
themselves under intense pressure to hit short-term targets.
The pressure on managers to deliver results is compounded
by the changing nature of their jobs. Advances in technology,
allied to global competition, have made executives’ work increas-
ingly complex and fast-paced. For example, technology has allowed
THE
SET-UP-TO-FAIL SYNDROME
3
companies to set up committees or project teams that span geo-
graphical boundaries and time zones, coming together at intervals
while keeping in touch electronically. As a result, we have seen a ris-
ing number of task forces and transitory, ad hoc types of structures
in many companies. This trend has multiplied the activities that
bosses have to manage concurrently, thus fragmenting their work
and generating more setup costs. Managing projects also necessi-
tates that bosses deal with people over whom they don’t have full
authority, which adds extra layers of complexity. And since those
projects and assignments have short time frames, the pressure to
show results intensifies.
Meeting tough performance targets under these frenzied condi-
tions requires managers to motivate and provide clear direction for
their people. To make sure that their subordinates execute tasks
effectively, managers need to exercise strong discipline, control, and
monitoring—which would seem enough of a challenge. But com-
panies want even more from their managers—after all, there’s a tal-
ent war going on out there! Therefore, companies also expect their
managers to display positive values and to develop people. Compa-
nies know that good people have become highly mobile, and that
a timely call from a headhunter, if they happen to feel frustrated
or unappreciated, can prompt them to leave at any moment. Exec-
utives are therefore expected to coach, empower, encourage initia-
tive and risk taking, foster loyalty and commitment, and show
recognition. It’s not just getting results that counts, but how execu-
tives get those results. Many companies have introduced evaluation
systems that measure executives against results and according to the
values and/or behaviors they display. Indications that a boss does
not “walk the talk”—such as poor 360-degree feedback or excessive
turnover—can spell serious trouble for that person.
3
Some compa-
nies also tie executive bonuses to the results of their 360-degree
evaluations.
Thus bosses are increasingly held responsible for creating a work
environment that is healthy and fulfilling for employees. At the
same time, they risk getting canned for failing to meet the numbers.
In effect, they have to negotiate a kind of tightrope. They are torn
between wanting to empower employees and making sure that
4
THE SET-UP-TO-FAIL SYNDROME
those employees can deliver on commitments; they want to show
consideration toward subordinates without encouraging compla-
cency; and they want to push for performance without alienating
their subordinates.
You might expect that bosses would be either good or bad at
walking this tightrope, but that is not what we observed in our
research. Rather, we found that most bosses actually achieve the bal-
ancing act with some of their subordinates but fail with others.
When we talked to employees rated as “higher performers,” their
comments suggested that their boss was striking that balance: Sure,
targets were tough, but the boss’s encouragement and support made
them seem achievable, even stimulating. Of course discipline and
measurement were necessary; how else could they learn and “own”
their areas?
Employees rated as “weaker performers” presented an altogether
different picture. According to them, their boss’s drive for results
was not tempered by the same levels of consideration, recognition,
or autonomy. They often regarded their boss’s help as interference,
his or her suggestions inhibiting, monitoring unfair, use of metrics
punitive, assignments unfulfilling, and so on. Instead of feeling
challenged, they felt burdened and abused. Some of these subordi-
nates’ testimonies were poignant. Many really cared about being
successful and helping their companies to be successful, but could
not perform to the best of their capabilities because of the way their
boss managed them. It was the difficulty bosses have in achieving
that balance with perceived weaker performers that first drew our
attention to this area—and that slowly led us to discover the intri-
cacies of how these dysfunctional relationships develop and self-
perpetuate.
An important point: We use the term weaker performers rather
than underperformers because the research we discuss in this book
does not relate to the small percentage of employees who under-
perform severely and fall short of the firm’s minimum performance
threshold. Our findings, and hence this discussion, pertain to em-
ployees whose overall performance is lower than some of their col-
leagues’ but still exceeds the firm’s minimum-performance thresh-
old. They are not employees the firm wants to let go; rather, they
THE
SET-UP-TO-FAIL SYNDROME
5
contribute to the firm’s performance, but not as much as some of
their better-performing colleagues.
Distress Signals
We don’t want to give away the whole story in a few words at this
stage, as it deserves to be unfolded carefully and systematically to
make sure we highlight all the relevant mechanisms. Still, we can
outline the basic problem as follows.
The set-up-to-fail syndrome begins innocuously enough. The
triggering event could be specific—perhaps an employee misses a
target or a deadline, loses a client, or gives a poor report or presen-
tation. The trigger could also be quite vague—maybe the employee
arrived from another unit with a lukewarm recommendation or
reacted oddly to early advice from the boss. In any case, something
sows a doubt in the boss’s mind, and the boss begins to worry that
the employee’s performance may not be up to par. The syndrome is
set in motion.
The boss then does what seems obvious in view of the subordi-
nate’s suspected shortcomings: He or she gives more time and atten-
tion to the subordinate. The boss starts providing more “guidance”
when assigning tasks, tries to be more involved in the subordinate’s
decision-making process, and monitors corrective actions and
progress more frequently and intensely (to make sure things are on
track). The boss typically means well. He is only trying to boost per-
formance and prevent the subordinate from making errors.
Unfortunately, subordinates often interpret that heightened
supervision as a lack of trust and confidence. Their initial attempts
to fight back seem to have little impact on the boss’s opinion of
them—and pretty soon instead of putting in more effort, they put
in less. Deprived of elbowroom, they start to doubt their own think-
ing and ability, and they lose the motivation to make autonomous
decisions. Feeling second-guessed much of the time, they figure,
“Why should I take risks when the boss won’t appreciate it any-
way?” Or else they hunker down and get on with the job but try to
steer clear of the boss.
Thinking—mistakenly—that the subordinate’s withdrawal con-
firms that he is indeed a weaker performer, the boss begins to inten-
6
THE SET-UP-TO-FAIL SYNDROME
sify her involvement in the subordinate’s affairs. For example, the
boss makes sure to define tasks very clearly, establishes precise and
frequent milestones, and then closely monitors performance (to
make sure the subordinate doesn’t “get in trouble”). She sets chal-
lenging targets and objectives, to make sure the subordinate main-
tains the appropriate degree of drive and energy. Meanwhile, she
increasingly steers important and risky assignments away from this
subordinate and toward colleagues she deems more reliable. Frus-
trated, the subordinate may start to retaliate by ignoring instruc-
tions, failing to stand up for the boss in front of other employees, or
even arguing with her. He begins to do only what is necessary to get
along, devotes increasing energy to self-protection, and gives up any
dream of making a meaningful contribution.
Of course, not all relationships degenerate to quite that extent.
Sometimes, boss and subordinate just settle into a routine that is
not really satisfactory but, aside from periodic clashes, otherwise
bearable. In more extreme cases, the pair plunges into an adversar-
ial relationship that really brings out the worst in each other. The
subordinate sees the boss as intransigent, interfering, and hyper-
critical; the boss sees the subordinate as inept, uncooperative, and
indecisive. They are well and truly caught up in the set-up-to-fail
syndrome.
The sad reality is that once people are miscast as weaker per-
formers, they tend to live down to that image regardless of their
capabilities. Our research suggests that the set-up-to-fail dynamic
can take hold in a remarkably short time—and that once it does take
hold, it proves very hard to reverse. Our research also suggests that
false perceptions play a significant role in the initial performance
“categorization.” That is why we call it a “set-up.”
Why do we call it a “syndrome?” Because it is based on an array
of observable behaviors. In medicine, a syndrome is a set of symp-
toms that, taken together, point to a particular pathology and sug-
gest a specific cure. The symptoms here include a certain perceived
lack of drive and motivation; an apparent lack of ability or willing-
ness to act autonomously and to “own” issues and tasks; a tendency
to resist innovation and new ideas and to hoard information; a
propensity to focus on problems rather than solutions; and often a
diminished ability to lead any subordinates to excellence.
THE
SET-UP-TO-FAIL SYNDROME
7
The syndrome begins when the boss responds, seemingly
reasonably, to the first instance of perceived poor performance. The
boss thinks, “I’ve got to push and prod these subordinates to per-
form”; “I’ve got to give them more guidance to make sure they’re
approaching tasks appropriately”; and “I’ve got to monitor their
work to make sure they don’t let problems get out of hand.” The
response is reasonable, for sure. Its effectiveness is less obvious, as
we will discuss later.
Note that we talk liberally about “bosses” in general, as if every
boss reacts to perceived weaker performers the same way. This is
a generalization designed to communicate our point quickly, but
it is not that much of an exaggeration. As we will discuss in chapter
2, the research that we and others have conducted suggests that
most managers across hierarchical levels, types of companies, and
national cultures seem to ascribe to a “common-sense” theory of
how to deal with weaker performing subordinates.
Note also that managers are not the only people in positions of
authority to confront this problem. So do teachers, who encounter
the “underperforming pupil syndrome” every day: A child doesn’t
listen properly, has a short attention span, is unresponsive, regularly
displays inexcusable gaps on topics that were discussed minutes ago,
and shows a propensity for unruly, sometimes delinquent behavior.
Sports coaches, who face the “underperforming player syndrome”
also grapple with this issue: A player displays inexcusable lapses of
concentration, refuses to follow the coach’s basic instructions, tries
to do everything alone, or tries plays that she or he is not capable of
performing while refusing to stick to basics.
Like most bosses, teachers and coaches respond in a clear-cut
way: they discipline the student or athlete and exert more control,
choosing to give a detention or bench the athlete until he or she
understands better who’s the boss! In any kind of leadership set-
ting—business, school, sports—these responses are reasonable if you
interpret the symptoms in a certain way. In many cases, however,
not only will these responses fail to solve the problem, they will
actually compound it. We wrote this book to help explain why, and
to show how leaders can approach perceived weaker performers
more effectively.
8
THE SET-UP-TO-FAIL SYNDROME
Do we mean all perceived weaker performers are potential solid
performers? Of course not. There are such things as hiring mistakes,
just as there are “pathological cases”—people who simply refuse to
face reality and make no attempt to improve. And clearly, com-
panies have to remove those people. But we would argue that the
overwhelming majority of perceived weaker performers could im-
prove significantly if they were better managed, better coached, or
assigned to a position better suited to their capabilities. In fact, in
our research we have seen several firsthand examples of bosses who
achieve outstanding results with “regular” folks. The familiar notion
of potential turns out to be dangerous, for who can really say how
much “potential” someone has? What we do know is that when
bosses get it into their heads that certain people have “limited
potential,” those bosses tend to behave accordingly—and will often
end up causing the subordinates to deliver in a limited way.
We are not trying to lay the whole blame on bosses. This is
clearly a two-way street—and we show in chapter 5 that one reason
why the process proves so powerful is that the subordinate joins in,
so that two people are setting each other up to fail. But because the
traditional approach to subordinate underperformance is to look for
explanations on the subordinate’s side, we are saying to bosses: start
by looking on your side.
Why Should Bosses Care?
For bosses, it’s important to know about this syndrome because of
its cost to them and to their units. Working as researchers and con-
sultants, we see how hard bosses try to make things work, the
tremendous effort they devote to raising the productivity of certain
subordinates. They work damned hard. They also create enormous
amounts of pain. When we talk to the “weaker performers,” they
talk about not being heard, not being understood, not being fairly
treated, being put under unnecessary pressure, and not being given
a chance to contribute. That pain and frustration translate into for-
feited performance. Perceived weaker performers may put in the
same effort as their peers, but their creative and critical faculties are
blocked, unappreciated, and ultimately unplugged.
THE
SET-UP-TO-FAIL SYNDROME
9
The relationship also takes a significant human toll on bosses.
Managers often tell us about the pain of working with weaker per-
formers. They tell us that even when they engage in performance-
improvement processes, the proportion of positive outcomes is dis-
appointingly low—which represents a high opportunity cost.
Those subordinates divert time and attention that bosses could be
spending on more value-adding activities. They also consume inor-
dinate amounts of energy, leaving bosses feeling depleted rather
than revitalized.
Moreover, the stress spreads beyond the boss and subordinate.
Weaker performers share their pain and misery with the members
of their teams, corroding the team spirit or sense of joint aspi-
ration. And, of course, they themselves may be bosses to other
people, and the syndrome can cause their own subordinates to
suffer in turn. Indeed, a recent McKinsey & Co. survey showed that
people who work for weaker performing managers agree strongly
that the experience “prevented me from learning,” “hurt my career
development,” “prevented me from making a larger contribution
to the bottom line,” and ultimately, “made me want to leave the
company.”
4
Beyond the current impact on performance, the ability to man-
age weaker performers also impacts a boss’s career development. For
over two decades, researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership
(CCL), which specializes in leadership research and education, have
been investigating career-success variables. They have found that
the number-one success factor in the top three jobs of large organi-
zations is “relationships with subordinates.”
5
The Center has also
conducted numerous studies of executive derailment—meaning res-
ignation, removal, or demotion. Those studies have systematically
shown that problems with interpersonal relationships and the
inability to build a team are the dominant reasons executives fail.
6
The latest evidence, based on interviews with over eight hundred
human resource executives, shows that failure to build good rela-
tionships with peers and subordinates is a major career-stopper,
accounting for 82 percent of derailment cases.
7
This phenomenon does not apply only to “Young Turks” who
suddenly find themselves out of their depth. It applies to senior peo-
ple, too. The fact that a boss “got away with it so far” is no guaran-
10
THE SET-UP-TO-FAIL SYNDROME
... Essentially, the articles states that all staff from the lowest to the highest person in management needs to be managed to get the best of them. Manzoni and Barsoux (2011), presented an article titled, "The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome", which was based on two studies designed to understand better the causal relationship between leadership style and subordinate performance, which explored how bosses and subordinates mutually influence each other's behaviour. Findings of the study suggest that, there were two obvious costs of the set-up-to-fail syndrome: the emotional cost paid by the subordinate and the organisational cost associated with the company's failure to get the best out of an employee. ...
... In the reviewed articles, Manzoni and Barsoux (2011), noted the tendency for senior management to place the blame of subordinate staff even when the problem lied with them leading to perpetuity of the problem. Walker (2011) on the other hand demonstrated that most managers showed elements of underperformance but were too embarrassed to admit and take responsibility. ...
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... A hidden effect of labor contracts capped at less than two years might be a decline in productivity and, subsequently, higher business costs on the long run (Yellen, 1984): assuming that their payment will not be increased after the contractual period, but, instead, that their contract will be terminated, the employees will not be as motivated as possible to give their best. A minimum wage labor contract capped in duration might lead to the 'set-up-to-fail' syndrome, according to which employees who are perceived as mediocre will live down to this low expectation and produce nothing else than mediocrity (Manzoni and Barsoux, 1998;2002). If the employer only regards the employee as a factor of production that will be replaced with another factor in maximum two years so that labor costs do not rise, then the employee who will sense this will suffer motivational losses that will translate into weak performances and low productivity. ...
... In particular, we focus on managers as sources of feedback. Although feedback can be sought from other sources (e.g., coworkers, customers), we focus on managers because subordinate performance reflects directly on the manager (Manzoni & Barsoux, 1998). That is, subordinates perform tasks on behalf of their managers (Doorewaard et al., 2002), meaning managers are directly affected by the quality and quantity of their subordinates' work. ...
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... Over time, employees even doubt their own thinking abilities and lose their motivation for independent decision making. Employees succumb to inertia, one of the greatest enemies of courage, with the thought that their superiors will question everything they do (Manzoni, & Barsoux, 1998). Today, we may encounter as many as successful organizations, perhaps more failures are encountered. ...
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