The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome

When discussing poor performance in the workplace, it is generally assumed that the employee in question is responsible for the low performance levels. However, Manzone and Barsoux (2002) believe that this is not always the case and it is possible the poor performance is being driven by the actions of the individual’s manager. They coined this situation as the Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome, whereby the manager creates an environment where their employee is likely to produce poor performance regardless of their talent.

The authors believe this can occur when the manager sets very low initial expectations for their employee and subsequently they are trapped into only producing work at that level. This generally occurs either the manager or employee are new to the team and have had no prior experiences with the other. These low expectations are generally triggered by a bad experience, a lack of motivation or a missed deadline for example, early on in their relationship. This leaves a lasting feeling with the manager, who sets low expectations for this employee in the future. These low expectations cause the manager to monitor them closely and only give them routine assignments. This subsequently affects the employee’s performance by lowering their confidence and not allowing them to gain the extra skills involved with more complicated work. This process is described by the authors as a ‘self-reinforcing cycle’, where the employee is paralysed to produce a low standard of work by the restrictions put on them by their manager.

There a number of clear costs to the organisation when this process occurs, not just the poor performance of the employee. The manager may end up wasting time and resources on closely monitoring the employee when this may not be necessary. The employee involved is also blocked from reaching their potential, which can have immediate and long-term effects on their career. This can have such long-term effects that the authors suggest it may even affect the way the employee later managers their subordinates, believing this is the most effective way of managing.

The authors outline various methods of preventing the syndrome from occurring, as well as methods of turning the process around once it has begun. However, they suggest that once it begins it is very hard to stop and hence it is important to ensure it does not happen from the start. Consistency of performance management strategies can stop this from occurring, the authors suggest, as well as a process of self-regulation. This ensures the performance of each team member is reviewed in the same way and the manager avoids making key mistakes.

The authors suggest that more often than not poor performance is driven by the actions of the employee, however, this unique case where the employee is paralysed by their manager should always be considered. The consequences can be substantial, so the simple steps to avoid it should always be taken.

Manzoni, J. F, and Jean-Louis Barsoux. (2002). The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 2002. Print.