The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: August 18th, 2011 by bobmorris

The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail
Jean-Francois Manzoni  and Jean-Louis Barsoux
Harvard Business Press (2002)

The Negative Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Note: I recently re-read this book while preparing questions for an interview and was amazed, frankly, how relevant the key insights in this book are to those in other books published yeas later, notably Jean-Lipman-Blumen’s The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians–and How We Can Survive Them (2006) and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (2009) co-authored by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky as well as Robert Sutton’s Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst (2010).

Jean-Francois Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux’s book is based on more than fifteen years of extended and combined research whose primary objective was to reveal the reasons why so many in positions of authority, especially bosses, are so ineffective when managing their subordinates, especially their perceived weaker performers. That is to say, supervisors are often unaware of the fact that they are “complicit in an employee’s lack of success. How? By creating and reinforcing a dynamic that essentially sets up perceived weaker performers to fail.” Hence the title of the  book. The authors explain the causes and effects of that “dynamic” (see “Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome,” Chapter 3) and also explain how to avoid it (“Preventing the Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome: Lessons from the Syndrome Busters,” Chapter 9). One of this book’s most valuable contributions is comprised of a series of “Tables” that organize and summarize key points. For example:

Table 2-1: “How Bosses See Their Behavior toward Subordinates” contrasts tendencies of bosses in relationships with weaker and stronger performers.
Table 5-1: “Taking Sides”presents two views of the same supervisor’s observed behavior either as a “great boss” or as an “impossible boss.”
Table 7-2: “Taking Responsibility Away from an Employee” juxtaposes a supervisor’s thoughts and feelings about a subordinate with direct interaction

Manzoni and Barsoux assert that the set-up-to-fail syndrome is “both self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing, which obscures the boss’s responsibility in the process as well as some of the key psychological and social mechanisms involved.” My own experience suggests an often great discrepancy exists between modes of behavior determined by conscious and unconscious mindsets. That is to say, many supervisors would vehemently deny that they are “complicit in an employee’s lack of success….[by] creating and reinforcing a dynamic that essentially sets up perceived weaker performers to fail.” Nonetheless they are. Were they to read this book, they would probably agree that there is such a syndrome and then lament how unfair it is to subordinates who are victimized by it.

One final point. Countless research studies of face-to-face communication have arrived at essentially the same conclusion: Body language creates 60-75% of the impact, tone of voice 15-20%, and content (i.e. what is actually said) only 10-15%. (Percentages vary among major global research studies but only slightly.) With the publication of this book, Manzoni and Barsoux have made a substantial contribution to our understanding of a widespread but, until now, neglected cause of human dysfunction in the workplace. Whether intentionally or not, a supervisor can sometimes create irreparable damage, especially to those who already feel insecure, by a negative and demeaning “message” which need not be expressed in words but comes through loud and clear nonetheless.



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