A review of “The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome” by Jean-Francois Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux

Sometimes, it’s the manager’s fault.  That’s the core idea in the third article in the volume “On Managing People” in Harvard Business Review’s collection of Must Reads.

This 1998 article (followed up in a book with the same title in 2002), describes “a dynamic in which employees perceived to be mediocre or weak performers live down to the low expectations their managers have for them.”

[photo source: hbr.org]

The heart of the matter is that managers sometimes respond to mediocre performance with activities that clearly signal their dissatisfaction, and disempower the employee, such as:

  • increased time and attention on the employee’s work
  • requiring approval / review of work before it goes out
  • suggestions or commandments about how work is to be done

The employee views this as a lack of trust and confidence.  This causes a loss of autonomy, confidence and motivation in the employee.  

This response by the employee reinforces the manager’s opinion, establishing a vicious spiral of micromanagement and poor performance.

As we saw in the previous article on motivation, when you disempower an employee, you undermine their motivation.

The Problem

The essential problem is that the manager does not know how to coach effectively.  Coaching employees through mediocre performance is not easy.  It requires a healthy and trusting relationship between the manager and the employee.  Trust is built over time, the result of many small interactions where the manager demonstrates their confidence in the employee, and their interest in the employee’s wellbeing.  The manager also needs to exhibit their own openness to receiving feedback and learning to do better.  In a healthy environment that is dedicated to improvement, coaching can make a difference in employee performance.  But if the requisite relationship does not exist between manager and employee, then the manager may feel that micromanaging is necessary to ensure that work is done with appropriate quality.  Although it may be impossible to establish a healthy relationship of trust, it is the manager’s responsibility to do their best to try.  Failing to try is the managers fault, and failing to coach represents poor performance by the manager.

Breaking the cycle

Breaking the cycle requires a very carefully constructed intervention.  The manager needs to accept their responsibility in establishing the unhealthy dynamic.  Unfortunately it is extremely hard to reset a relationship that lacks trust – that’s why the authors of this article say that breaking out of this cycle is extremely rare in practice.  It’s far better to avoid the cycle in the first place.

Poorly named article

I don’t think this article is actually talking about situations where people are set up to fail.  That would be a situation where an employee is incapable of performing their job.  This article is talking about poor attitudes and behaviors in response to perceived mediocre performance.  It would have been better titled “The Vicious Cycle of Micromanagement.”  

About brendansterne

Director of Innovation Labs, Indeed.com
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