Regardless of the level in the organization’s hierarchy, every employee bears responsibility for the results of daily activities. Based on performance, not on a person’s competence and skills, the board decides on possible promotion or raises and reprimand or dismissal.

In some cases an employee may experience a situation when delivering adequate results is impossible – this type of case is referred to as the set-up-to-fail syndrome. Its causes can be varied, but the consequences are usually severe for both employees and the organization as a whole. Below we explain for what reason.

The set-up-to-fail syndrome

Also known as the fail syndrome, this organizational dynamics phenomenon stems from leaders’ or supervisors’ attitudes. They create conditions that predetermine employees to fail or make it impossible to achieve expected results. In practice, it involves the use of deliberate actions and the display of behaviors that undermine the results delivered by the person employed.

Such actions consider both internal (resulting from the supervisor’s attitude) and external (constituting a negative element of organizational culture implemented by more than one supervisor or management). They are obvious to spot especially in the case of employees performing at an average – but still correct – level, but who could become more valuable to the organization if given appropriate support.

Causes of the set-up-to-fail syndrome

Lack of confidence on the part of the supervisor is the most common reason. When a leader does not believe in an employee’s competence, skills or abilities (e.g., due to making a single mistake or having problems completing a selected task), he or she begins to treat him or her as a person who is incapable of achieving the expected results.

Such a belief translates into a lack of development support failure to provide tasks at the level of competence or stopping the employee from showing initiative, which is noticed in terms of the employee’s performance (there is a negative sense of over-control and undervaluation). Additional reasons for the described phenomenon include:

  • Too high expectations – the leader sets impossible goals or expects results from the employee that are beyond his or her reach (e.g., due to the capabilities provided by the company, competencies possessed, etc.),
  • Negative beliefs – take the form of personal dislike (for no reason or because of personality, values or character), which translates into treating an employee inappropriately and reinforcing expected (poor) behavior,
  • Lack of support and resources – the supervisor does not help or provide the training, resources or information necessary for the employee to do the job effectively, thus making it difficult to achieve the expected results.

Set-up-to to failure syndrome vs. threats to the organization

The set-up-to-fail syndrome can have consequences that can both the employee himself and the organization. First and foremost, setting unrealistic expectations, systematic negative evaluations or failing to provide needed support can lead to a decline in the employee’s motivation and commitment. Such a person will feel discouraged and worthless, thus losing the desire to take initiative and engage in their duties.

Moreover, through the constantly felt stress and pressure, productivity and quality of work will decrease which in turn, lowers the organization’s performance. The employees will also not have the chance to realize their potential – and the company will lose the opportunity to see what they could provide for the company if development more strongly.

set-up-to-fail syndrome

The set-up to fail syndrome – summary

The set-up-to-fail syndrome is a vicious cycle or self-fulfilling prophecy – the supervisor believes that certain workers are incompetent, takes actions that contribute to demonstrating this attitude and escalates his or her behavior. Eventually, the negative consequences come not only from unmotivated workers but also from overpowering supervisors).

This outlook that leaders demonstrate can affect both the employees (who can even resign), the team (worsening the atmosphere) as well as the organization as a whole (producing poorer results). Because of these types of risks, you need to watch and respond carefully to emerging symptoms of the set-up-to-fail syndrome. After all, creating a healthy and equitable work environment in which employees have a chance to succeed and thrive is key to achieving efficiency and sustainability in an organization.

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The set-up-to-fail syndrome What are its causes and risks? nicole mankin avatar 1background

Author: Nicole Mankin

HR manager with an excellent ability to build a positive atmosphere and create a valuable environment for employees. She loves to see the potential of talented people and mobilize them to develop.