Sometime ago, I wrote about self fulfilling prophecies and what is called the Pygmalion effect in psychological studies. Here I am going to explore a little more on how these expectations lead to a syndrome and set us up to fail.
When an employee fails—or even just performs poorly—managers typically do not blame themselves. The manager typically contends that the employee doesn’t understand the work;
the employee isn’t driven to succeed;
the employee can’t set priorities; or
the employee won’t take direction.
Whatever be the reason, the problem is assumed to be the employee’s fault—and the employee’s responsibility.
But, is it? 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. But sometimes—and we would venture to say often—an employee’s poor performance can be blamed largely on his boss.
Perhaps “blamed” is too strong a word, but it is directionally correct. In fact, our research strongly suggests that bosses—albeit accidentally and usually with the best intentions—are often complicit in an employee’s lack of success.
How? 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.
Here are the steps:
1. Before the Setup To Fail Syndrome begins, the boss and the staff member are typically engaged in a positive, or at least neutral relationship.
2. The triggering events in the Setup To Fail Syndrome is often minor or surreptitious. The staff member may miss a deadline, lose a client, or submit a subpar report. In other cases, the syndrome’s genesis is the boss, who distances himself from the staff member for personal or social reasons unrelated to performance.
3. Reacting to the triggering event, the boss increases his supervision of the staff member, gives more specific instructions, and wrangles longer over course of action.
4. The staff member responds by beginning to suspect a lack of confidence and senses he is not part of the boss’s in-group anymore. He starts to withdraw emotionally from the boss and from work. He may also fight to change the boss’s image of him, reaching too high or running too fast to be effective.
5. The boss interprets this problem – hoarding, overreaching, or tentativeness as signs that the staff member has poor judgment and weak capabilities. If the staff member does perform well, the boss does not acknowledge it or considers it a lucky ‘one off.’ He limits the staff member’s discretion, withholds social contact, and shows, with increasing openness, his lack of confidence in and frustration with the staff member.
6. The staff member feels boxed in and under-appreciated. He increasingly withdraws from his boss and from work. He may even resort to ignoring instructions, openly disrupting the boss, and occasionally lashing out because of feelings of rejection. In general, he performs his job mechanically and devotes more energy to self-protection. Moreover, he refers all non-routine decisions to the boss or avoids contact with him.
7. The boss feels increasingly frustrated and is now convinced that the staff member cannot perform without intense oversight. He makes this known by his words and deeds, further undermining the staff member’s confidence and prompting inaction.
8. When the Setup To Fail Syndrome is in full swing, the boss pressures and controls the staff member during interactions. Otherwise, he avoids contact and gives the staff member routine assignments only. For his part, the staff member shuts down or leaves, either in dismay, frustration, or anger.
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.
The process is self-fulfilling because the boss’s actions contribute to the very behavior that is expected from weak performers. It is self-reinforcing because the boss’s low expectations, in being fulfilled by his staff members, trigger more of the same behavior on his part, which in turn triggers more of the same behavior on the part of staff members.
And on and on, unintentionally, the relationship spirals downward.
Dr Surya M Ganduri, PhD. PMP. is the Founder & President of eMBC, Inc., an international firm specializing in strategic and executive leadership development processes that Help People Succeed in an Evolving World. Dr Surya has over 28 years of business experience in management consulting, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvements, organizational development and youth leadership. For more information visit www.eMBCinc.com or contact eMBC, Inc., directly at (630) 445-1321.
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