Case Study: The Set Up To Fail Syndrome
Jean-François Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux, in their book, The Set-Up-ToFail Syndrome, write that when an employee underperforms, doubts are cast on his/her capabilities, while the manager and the organisation remain insulated. They further write that the Manager's impression of the employee does not change even after a good performance, and he/she is almost always assigned unimportant tasks. This gives way to enhanced frustration on both fronts, resulting in either the employee quitting or getting fired.
It was 7:30 PM. Neil was seated at his desk that was located in a corner facing the glass window on the 9th floor of a tall building. The office was quiet and empty as all his colleagues had left, but the main road of Hyderabad Hitec city, lined up with a fleet of cars, was abuzz with life. Staring at the vehicles, he wondered how many were returning home happy and content with their job. When he received a notification from the tiffin service company indicating an hour’s delay in the dinner delivery on his phone, he had a sudden realisation of time. He had been sitting despairingly for more than an hour with many questions running in his mind.
“What went wrong? Am I the only one experiencing this? Is this how work-life supposed to be? What should I do? Is it happening because it is my first job? Am I not competent enough?”
Trying to figure out the root of his dissatisfaction, he was reminded of the words of his Professor, “Students when it comes to career, do what you love and love what you do!” He had diligently followed the advice of the Professor. Graduating from one of country’s top B Schools, he chose to specialise in HR owing to his interest against the advice of many. He graduated with flying colours. Everybody, including his teachers and family, had high expectations from him. When he successfully cleared the interview at ICS, a premier HR consulting firm, he was determined to live up to their expectations. Neil was overjoyed that he had got his first opening with a reputed name in the industry where he could optimise and expand his skills.
Sipping the leftover coffee, his mind took him one year back in memory to the first day at work.
9th June 2018
Dressed immaculately, he had entered this very building to join as an Associate-Research with mixed feelings of excitement, enthusiasm and nervousness. After a three-day orientation programme, he was shown his office space where he met his colleagues, Shayla, Rakhi, David, Faisal and Raj. Shayla shared some information about the various projects that she was working on and Faisal divulged details about the company culture, implicit norms and practices. Everyone seemed quite friendly, and Neil happened to be the youngest of them all. With excellent infrastructure, pleasant work environment and friendly colleagues, he felt comfortable in the new organisation.
Neil soon got the opportunity to meet his immediate boss and Team Lead- James. The first meeting went very well, where both shared their expectations and aspects of the job, role and responsibilities. A week passed by with no work being allotted to Neil. This turned to boredom for Neil who was looking forward to learning and be an actively contributing member of the organisation.
He could not stop himself from enquiring from Faisal, ‘I wonder what to do. It has been more than ten days since I have joined, and James has not assigned me any work.
Relax dear. When work eventually comes, then you will face the challenge of taking time out for self. This is the first time I am seeing someone so eager for work.’ Faisal replied with a smile.
The following day James called Neil to his room and said casually, ‘Hi Neil, I have some work.’ Neil’s eyes lit up as he said, ‘Yes, Sir, what is it?’
‘Can you get ten photocopies of this document?’ James said, handing over the document while simultaneously arranging his cluttered desk.
Neil came back with the photocopies, looking expectantly for some meaningful assignment, only to be told to leave. A day later, James again called Neil asking for help in locating a copy of the proposed budget for G&T Associates misplaced in his room.
‘Sure Sir!’ Neil replied, trying to find the paper while thinking, ‘Is this the work I am supposed to do after investing hours acquiring higher education in college?’
Another week passed by with James not assigning any meaningful work to Neil. As Neil sat pondering over his excellent academic performance in college, laurels earned in his summer training with TATA, and wondering if he was impatient, the phone rang.
‘Yes, Sir, I am coming.’ Neil said, answering James over the phone.
‘Come Neil. Sit down. This is a project we are doing for D&G company, diagnosing the fallacies in their current job evaluation system. Go through this file and update yourself. You will be working on it from today itself and coordinate with Mr Zubin too. Mr Zubin is my boss and the Senior Management Consultant of our company. You may regularly update me on the progress. This is a very significant project for us, and I hope you will work responsibly’, James said, handing over a file.
‘Thank you, Sir. I will put in my best’. Neil replied positively.
Keen on taking up the assigned task with full zeal, he got completely involved in it. Everything was going very smoothly. He was also given the additional responsibility of writing and compiling information across teams for the internal fortnightly journal of the company meant for its employees and relevant stakeholders. Neil used to mark a copy to James by the specified due date. There was an error in the data given in a report that got published. James was very busy with another project and had not been following it closely.
When Zubin opened his mailbox, he was taken aback by the negative messages from his boss and readers, pointing out a major data error in the publication.
‘Please ask Neil to revisit the file. It has already been circulated with that glaring error. We need to issue a statement on the same. James, it appears that you are not taking your work seriously. Just because I forwarded the same without studying it in detail, the quality has been seriously compromised’, Zubin reacted angrily over the phone.
This was the first time James had got a hearing from his boss. It was around 6:30 PM, and Neil was about to leave for home when James called him to his room immediately.
With the file open on his computer pointing at the mistake highlighted in bold red, a deeply upset James retorted, ‘Neil, how can you be so sloppy in your work? Before attaching any file and clicking the send button, you should check for its accuracy and completeness. You know, I got a call from the Mr Zubin from the head office for this. I did not expect this from you.’
Neil was filled with regret as he stared at the error that had happened by mistake.
‘Sir, I had checked it. Somehow, this missed my eye. I am so sorry. This is the first time it has happened like this. I will go and do the needful right away’.
‘Neil, when it comes to carelessness there is no first or last time. The kind of work we do requires consistent precision and performing as per well-established quality standards. I cannot rely on you completely for any work now. It seems I will personally have to crosscheck all your work in future. You may leave now’
Neil left the room heartbroken and disappointed. This was the first time that his boss had reprimanded him. The words of James, ‘I can’t rely on you now’ echoed in his ears.
On the way, he met Faisal with whom he shared everything.
‘It’s okay dear. You are in a job now. Get used to such things. Bosses are like this sometimes. You should not take such things to heart.’ Faisal replied lightly while leaving for home.
Two days later, Neil got a call from James who asked him to work on finalising a project report to be sent to their boss at the company headquarters in California. Neil put his heart and soul in the task to earn the confidence and appreciation of James and Zubin. He consulted other resource persons, worked overtime, and tried his level best.
However, this time he was a little befuddled by James’s attitude of calling now and then, seeking feedback on the progress of the task. For the first time, someone was monitoring his work so closely. Being a sincere, hardworking employee with the requisite work competence, he did not like the change in James’s behaviour, but chose to ignore it. When the project report got completed, Neil consulted a few reliable sources in his circle and got assuring feedback from them. This made him optimistic of receiving a highly favourable response when he handed the project report to James.
After examining each page slowly and carefully, James responded, ‘It seems OK, Neil. I will again go through it later and rectify the probable errors you might have done’. This response shook Neil, who had worked very hard on the project report and was expecting a very positive and encouraging review for the same.
James was known as a boss who put his team members at ease and value their efforts. His friendly disposition created a healthy work environment and people felt motivated to give their best. Neil had entered James’s room with high expectations, owing to his initial positive interactions with him, coupled with the hard work he had put in this report and the positive feedback he had received from others. Somehow, he felt underappreciated. He was hoping that James would call him to give genuine feedback and discuss with him if he had identified any mistakes, but that never happened. The project report got rave reviews post-publication, but no appreciation came in Neil’s way from James.
The change in James’ behaviour after that error in the company journal was quite apparent. On many occasions, Neil felt as if the right to exercise his independent discretion had been limited, and his good performance went unnoticed. It made him reflect whether he had lost his managers’ trust in his skill and abilities.
The project of D&G co. on which Neil was working with Mr Zubin was also in full swing. When this project was in its critical and concluding phase, James called David and Neil to his office cabin and said, ‘David, I hope by now you are familiar with the project for D&G co. You can take the other files and updates from Neil and start working on it’.
‘Neil, David will be there to help you now. From now on before you forward anything to me or Mr Zubin, share and get it checked with David’
David was also working as an Associate for the past two years with ICS. Neil was highly disappointed, yet nodded in approval.
‘I have been working so hard on this project. I have done all the work on time, coordinating effectively with both James and Mr Zubin. What is the need to include David in this project when it is almost nearing its end? I don’t need anyone to help me in this. I can handle it alone and that too, I need to seek approval from David when I am the one working on it since its inception stage. What does my boss think that I can’t do anything by myself or I am good for nothing?’ The project went on, and James started corresponding more with David. Neil would receive his orders and suggestions indirectly through David now.
Whenever Neil approached James to seek any clarification, he would get to hear, ‘did you discuss it with David?’ Once he had a very bright idea on the intervention strategy for D&G co, and he spontaneously felt the urge to share it with James.
‘Yes, it might work. Have you shared the same with David? First, both of you deliberate over it to see if it is worthwhile, then meet me.’ James replied coldly without even making eye contact, adjusting his shot playing table tennis in the breakout area.
A frustrated Neil gradually started losing interest in the project. He felt as if nothing noteworthy was expected of him. He could see his performance declining as he was moving from a position of intrinsic motivation to forced involvement. While taking the last sip of coffee on his first work anniversary, he felt sad that his mind was occupied with thoughts of quitting instead of celebration.
Note: This hypothetical case has been written to illustrate and examine real-world workplace issues for the sole purpose of learning and classroom discussion. The names of the company and people are entirely fictional. The case study as well as the analyses are inspired by the book, The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome by Jean-François Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux.
Dr. Farah Naqvi is a writer, academician and behavioural scientist. She started her career with Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and has worked with institutions like ICFAI Hyderabad, IBA Bangalore and Center for Organization Development, Hyderabad as Asst. Professor. Currently she is associated with the Indian Institute of Business Psychology (IIBP) as a Senior Researcher. Her website is https://farahnaqvi.com.
Analysis By Kalpana Bansal is Head - Competency Assessment and Development, Reliance Industries Ltd.
Organisations and teams often operate in complex lattice structures, with parallel hierarchies based on personal relationships and political alignments. It is often difficult for the newcomers to “decipher the code” and find alignment. More often than not, the boss is usually less competent than the subordinate and uses his position as a lever to negate the new joiner’s experience.
Almost every other management trainee from a premium B-school would narrate a story similar to the one experienced by Neil, such as making copies for James. Lack of clarity on job roles and being asked to perform tasks that do not require critical thinking is quite a common narrative, as most of the large organisations take in a huge number of premium management graduates without having the foggiest notion of what they want to do with them. There is an acute imbalance in the number of roles in an organisation that demand superior thinking skills vis-à-vis the number of management graduates waiting to be absorbed, and some industry correction on this inequity would go a long way in setting some of these problems right.
James represents the best of the “tried and tested” in an organisation’s hierarchy. Very often, the senior suffers from an insecurity complex about the institution he has graduated from and believes that “showing the junior his place” is the only way to instil a sense of control and obeisance in him. Organisations rarely put in enough effort into building mechanisms to ensure that people management of premium cadre employees is at a level that is conducive to their positive employee experience and long-term retention.
The David angle represents the best of what is called a wedge between the boss and the subordinate to create a sense of alienation and insecurity in the employee. Very often, the “David” in the picture is an employee who is ambling along in the same role for a long time, is a peer to the new entrant, and has delivered work for the boss in the past. David is an ally for James in the sense that he is a backup and provides a sense of stability and approval for James. Neil is caught in a tricky situation without a clear path to exit. He could have an exploratory discussion with James, but it is unlikely that it would have an impact or yield an outcome. Befriending David is another route that could be taken by Neil, but that is a sticky path to tread.
Having been Neil many times over in her career, one has discovered that it is absolutely critical to understand the political landscape and learn to manoeuvre around critical stakeholders. It is also helpful to have a network beyond your boss and have enough people in the system whom one can talk to and exchange perspectives. It is useful to have a mentor, even when one is not officially assigned.
Another proven route is that of finding another leader in the system and taking on a stretch assignment. The other person may not be as biased and be more receptive of your capability and contribution and probably provide you with inroads and access to the leaders at the top. Once you start making a mark, there is very little that an incompetent boss could do to restrict your growth.
It is often said that the path to success is not paved with roses. Changing an organisation or a boss is usually a very ineffective way of sorting out a fundamentally systemic issue, which is that the person at the top is usually incompetent who has had the longest tenure. The smarter thing to do in Neil’s situation is to enhance your own Stakeholder management and conflict management skills, as it is something that would stand you in good stead in the long run.
Analysis By Sakshi Sood is HR-Business Partner, Merck Sharp & Dohme.
Our perceptions can create our reality! At a time when attrition is so detrimental,the thought that employers might actually be creating issues instead of solving them is indeed sobering. Setting up to fail is a no-win situation, designed in such a way that the person in the situation cannot succeed at the task which they have been assigned. It is considered a form of workplace bullying.
The process usually begins with a simple trigger - a missed deadline or a certain minor error that confirms a boss’s preconception of a particular subordinate as an under performer. Such a perception causes the manager to focus greater attention on that employee’s work. Although these actions are meant to help the worker improve his performance, they actually undermine his performance. Stripped of selfconfidence, the employee loses his ability to make autonomous decisions. This passivity confirms the boss’s assessment of the employee’s abilities, leading him to be even more vigilant. This is known as the Golem Effect, a psychological phenomenon wherein lower expectations placed upon individuals either by supervisors or the individual themselves lead to poorer performance by the individual.
There are multiple costs involved including the emotional cost paid by the subordinate and the organisational cost associated with getting the best out of an employee.Moreover, uneasy relationships often sap the boss’s energy. Besides, the energy devoted to trying to fix these relationships or improving performance through increased supervision prevents the boss from attending to other activities. The syndrome also has serious consequences for any team as the team spirit suffers. A lack of faith in perceived weaker performers can tempt bosses to overload those whom they consider superior performers.
Differentiating winners and others
These categorisations often have less to do with performance than with personal biases. Once people have been judged in a certain way, most people are likely to focus on details that confirm their assessment and less likely to take into account new information.
Compounding the problem is 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.
Prevention - Eternal Vigilance is the only answer. It is easier to prevent the process than to stop it once it has been set in motion.
Reversing the Set-up-to-fail syndrome
It is not irreversible but requires a lot of effort. The subordinate must consistently deliver superior results such that the boss is forced to change his opinion. But 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.
Getting it Right
The set-up-to-fail syndrome is not an organisational fait accompli. It can be unwound. Reversing the syndrome requires managers to challenge their own assumptions. The boss must create the right context for the discussion. He and the subordinate must use the intervention process to come to an agreement on the symptoms of the problem and its causes. They must then agree about the expectations and deliverables. Finally, managers avoid the set-up-to-fail syndrome by creating an environment in which employees feel comfortable discussing their performance and their relationships with the boss.
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