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Quit Setting Up Your Employees for Failure

Anna Bramlette | 12/07/2023

Let’s face it: every company, at some point, has found itself tangled up in situations where managers unwittingly contribute to the underperformance of their teams.

Instead of digging into the root causes, fingers are pointed at employees, creating a vicious cycle of disappointment.

This subtle yet pervasive phenomenon sees managers inadvertently contributing to the underperformance of their employees. Rather than addressing the root causes, managers frequently attribute failure to the individuals themselves.

This usually begins with a performance trigger. This could look like the loss of a client, missed deadlines, or personal conflicts. Managerial responses intensify supervision and control, leading to a self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing cycle. Employee perceptions of heightened supervision as a lack of trust can result in a loss of motivation and autonomy. The boss, in turn, reacts with increased pressure, perpetuating the negative cycle.

The syndrome often begins with categorical thinking, where bosses categorize subordinates into in-groups and out-groups based on assumptions about motivation, innovation, and problem-solving. This thinking simplifies decision-making but leads to biases and premature closure, affecting weaker and stronger performers differently.

The emotional toll on subordinates and the organizational failure to leverage employee potential are just the tip of the iceberg. Overloading top performers can lead to burnout, while the alienation of weaker performers negatively affects team dynamics and productivity. The repercussions extend beyond the immediate relationship, with subordinates replicating the behavior when they become managers, thus negatively impacting the broader organizational culture.

There are two steps to get over this cycle:

  1. Recognize that it’s a problem
  2. Craft an intervention

A carefully planned and structured intervention involves candid conversations to untangle unhealthy dynamics. The goal is sustainable improvement in performance while progressively reducing managerial involvement.

There are Five Components to Effective Interventions:

a. Creating the Right Context: Selecting a non-threatening time and place, using affirming language, and framing the session as a discussion on performance, roles, and the relationship.

b. Agreement on Problem Symptoms: Identifying specific weaknesses backed by facts and data.

c. Understanding the Causes: Unearthing reasons for weak performance, assessing skills, time management, knowledge, priorities, and discussing how managerial behavior may impact performance.

d. Agreement on Performance Objectives: Plotting a course of treatment, identifying ways to improve skills, knowledge, experience, or the relationship, and explicitly discussing future supervision.

e. Commitment to Open Communication: Agreeing to communicate more openly in the future and encouraging immediate feedback.

Interventions are rare due to the discomfort associated with discussing performance. Subordinates fear appearing thin-skinned, and bosses worry about potential reactions, creating a challenging dynamic.

Viewing intervention as an investment with high potential payback, comparing the costs of finding and training replacements to the benefits of improved performance. Potential outcomes range from improved performance and relationships to fairness benefits, even if performance doesn’t significantly improve.

Preventing the set-up-to-fail syndrome involves awareness, acknowledgment, and proactive traits from effective bosses. Gradually reducing involvement based on improved performance, challenging assumptions before interventions, and creating an open environment for frequent communication are key prevention methods.

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