The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome: a summary

3 minute read

The set-up-to-fail syndrome 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.

J-F Manzoni, J-L Barsoux (1998) The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome

This is an excellent and well detailed analysis on how a relationship or miscommunication issue can trigger a major performance issue, and can tank the morale. It’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy: the bad performance is created by an expectation of bad performance.

The set-up-to-fail syndrome works in these stages:

  1. Event — there’s some minor event between an employee and the boss: could be performance, could be character compatibility, could be differences in work approaches, could be even just miscommunication.
  2. Supervision — the boss thus increase the supervision, giving more specific instructions and checking if they were completed as expected.
  3. Distancing — the employee feels lack of trust, likely both distances from the boss and starts taking more challenges or just more work to prove them wrong.
  4. Constriction — the boss notices this behaviour, and think there’s poor judgement, thus increasing the supervision, increases micromanagement, and reduces agency.
  5. Disconnection — the employee thus feels now chained to the job, with very restrictive tasks and constant micromanagement, might even raise some controversy toward them, and spends more time defending themselves instead of performing.
  6. Frustration — the boss is now convinced the employee can’t perform, and is now explicit about it.
  7. Leave — the employee thus shuts down, asks for a transfer, or worse, leaves.

It’s quite clear how pairing the wrong boss to a team could generate this chain of events for the whole team: I want to highlight this to note how this might not be a fault on either party, but an organizational problem for both the boss and the employee.

This dynamic is even more impactful if the employee that is affected is also a manager of other people: its effect multiplies down.


The reason why the set-up-to-fail syndrome is so impactful is because it impacts the people sense of self-determination:

  • Autonomy is slowly taken away by micromanagement and evaluation.
  • Relatedness is diminished by the increased distance between the two people involved.
  • Competence is affected because the person doesn’t feel effective anymore.

In short, this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy destroys trust.

Breaking this destructive cycle is mostly in the hands of the boss, mostly because the person “underperforming” would have to break the emotional impact and perform so brilliantly to overturn all the expectations.

Research shows that bosses tend to attribute the good things that happen to weaker performers to external factors rather than to their efforts and ability — while the opposite is true for perceived high performers: successes tend to be seen as theirs, and failures tend to be attributed to external uncontrollable factors.

J-F Manzoni, J-L Barsoux (1998) The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome

How to avoid the syndrome?

The boss has to work first to rebuild trust, as such it’s important they review what’s happening, connect, and reset:

  1. Recognize the downward spiral and accept the responsibility.
  2. Check external opinions and data to not be locked in subjectivity.
  3. Communicate clearly, highlight the problem, and be explicit.
  4. Trust has to be given again, and felt.
  5. Reach a shared understanding and collaborate on a plan forward.

Often the biggest obstacle to effective intervention is the boss’s mind-set. When a boss believes that a subordinate is a weak performer and, on top of everything else, that person also aggravates him, he is not going to be able to cover up his feelings with words; his underlying convictions will come out

J-F Manzoni, J-L Barsoux (1998) The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome

For this reason, another strategy, if possible, is as hinted before organizational. It might make more sense to disconnect the two people, and move one of them in a team where they can thrive — and I’m saying this move is either the boss or the employee, it’s not always the employee that has to “pay” with a move.

Ultimately, the best scenario, is to avoid this syndrome altogether. It’s useful to know it exists, so it’s easier for both the people involved to recognize this early. If spotted soon enough, a conversation that clarifies both position might solve everything, quickly.