The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome

by Jean-François Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux

WHEN AN EMPLOYEE FAILS—or even just performs poorly—managers typically do not blame themselves. The employee doesn’t understand the work, a manager might contend. Or the employee isn’t driven to succeed, can’t set priorities, or won’t take direction. Whatever 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, ...

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