The Set Up To Fail Syndrome: A Case Study!
Jean-François Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux, in their book, The Set-Up-To Fail 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.
9th June 2019
It was 7:30 pm now. Neil sat on his corner desk on the 9th floor of a tall building facing the glass window. 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 buzzing with life. Staring at the cars on the road, he wondered how many of these employees returning from work to home were happy and content with their job. When a notification from the tiffin service company that dinner delivery will get delayed by an hour popped on his cellphone, he had a sudden realization 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 seems like? 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 a top B school of the country, he chose to specialize in HR because of his interest in the area even when many advised him against it. In college, Neil was a merit holder and had 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 industry brand where he could optimize and expand his skills.
Sipping the leftover coffee, his mind took him one year back in memory, 9th June 2018 when it was the first day of his first job. Dressed immaculately, he had entered this same building for joining as Associate-Research with mixed feelings of excitement, enthusiasm and nervousness. After a three-day orientation program, he was shown his office space where he met his other 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 organization.
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 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 organization member.
He could not stop himself from enquiring from Faisal, ‘I wonder what to do. It has been more than ten days to my joining, 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 Sr. 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 the full zeal he got involved in it totally. 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 of it 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 seems 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 James retorted appearing deeply upset, ‘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 head office, Mr Zubin 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 there is nothing like first or last time when it comes to carelessness. 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 when 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 finalizing a project report to be sent to the 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 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 having requisite competence needed for the work, 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 valued the efforts of team members, putting them at ease with his behaviour. His friendly disposition created a healthy work environment in which people felt motivated to give their best efforts. 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 its 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 with 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.
- Jean-Francois ManzonIi, Jean-Louis Barsoux (2002) Set-up-to-fail Syndrome: Overcoming the Undertow of Expectations. Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation
- Jean-François Manzoni,Jean-Louis Barsoux (1998) How bosses create their own poor performers. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/1998/03/the-set-up-to-fail-syndrome
- Rosenthal, Robert & Jacobson, Lenore Pygmalion in the classroom (1992). Expanded Edition. New York: Irvington
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