Remember the days of the old school yard?
Pick any teen movie that involves high school action and you’ll invariably find there is a focal character who is the power broker or influencer and they are surrounded by both an in crowd and an out crowd. A relationship with this person is fundamental to success, for any of the students, regardless of their potential. The movies show the in crowd as the cool ones who are rich, party hard and have success handed to them on a platter. The out crowd is typecast as geeks and nerds, who are socially inept and desperate for inclusion. Maybe you recall school being like that. I hope not so harsh.
Invariably in the movies, the champion geek eventually makes it good to be one of the in crowd – to be the toast of the town and walk away with an amazing boyfriend or girlfriend. The rest of the out crowd then celebrates success by association. I like this predictable plot that has a happy ending for everyone. Is this how it goes when we grow up, leave school and join the workforce? Well the in and out crowds exist, yes, the happy ending, though – apparently not always.
Here we go again, but in the work yard now
I was talking to a friend recently who made what was simply a passing comment that they felt they’d been set up to fail. I pondered on that. Of course, as often happens, I found myself some time later reading an HBR article on just this very subject, The Set Up to Fail Syndrome. As I read through the article and got an understanding of what the syndrome really was, I realised that there were elements of the syndrome I had experienced in the workplace in the past and as a manager. Could it be that I was unconsciously setting subordinates up to fail? Apparently it could, as distasteful as I find the idea.
Think about the team you work in and where you fit in the team. Is there an in crowd and an out crowd? Are you an inny or an outy? In the workplace, the In crowd refers to those who have the ear of or the favour of the boss. The boss in this scenario is that super cool dude who everyone wants to have a good relationship with but for much more important and legitimate reasons than back in school.
Let’s not be too hard on the boss now. They are only human in the end. There are going to be some people who they relate to well and others with whom they will struggle. None of us are any different unless we are some kind of saint. But of course, the boss is supposedly paid to see beyond the idiosyncrasies of individuals that may make some people more challenging to connect to or even tolerate.
Innies and Outies on display
According to HBR’s article, we can see the In/Out crowd in action in the work place. We can witness and compare how a manager relates to those in either camp.
- The In camp is trusted and is given a degree of autonomy where the Out crowd is likely to be micromanaged.
- In conversations, the manager will discuss outcomes with the In crowd and detailed processes (how you do it, and usually “my way”) with the Out crowd.
- When someone in the In crowd makes and error or omission it’s a great learning experience, but in the Out crowd it’s an affirmation of incompetence.
- There is always time for a chat for the Innies including the personal subjects, where the Outies are welcomed on an as needs basis and strictly confined to the non-social work related topics.
- Suggestions are welcome from the In crowd and tolerated or paid lip service to from the Out crowd
- Praise rains heavily on the In crowd whilst the Out crowd experiences a recognition drought.
These are all pretty dramatic behaviours from leaders, but they really are quite common and I believe most commonly delivered without malice.
So how do we connect this to being set up for failure?
Before a relationship begins, a manager may have preconceived ideas of the character and performance of a subordinate. A manager, as we all do, will form an opinion on a new subordinates’ capability and capacity based on their immediate impressions, their unconscious bias, and any information on previous performance that may be communicated from their previous manager. As it is in all other areas of our life, we go about finding information we need to support our beliefs and blocking out information that contradicts them.
Of course, it is those who fall into the Out crowd who are most susceptible to this syndrome. Their performance is always subject to the rigors of preconceived perceptions and so even when their performance is strong, it is seen as an anomaly. Take for example the case of an employee who may have been counselled in the past for arriving late on occasions. If this information is passed on to their new manager, then the new manager will be on the lookout for this behavior. They may be the first to arrive at work every day for a month, but the one day they are 5 minutes late will be the day their performance is judged on. It is on this day they will affirm their manager’s expectations and beliefs. A manager’s inclination will then be to manage that person more closely based on eroded trust. A lack of trust is a sure way to lower employee engagement. As employee engagement drops, so does interest and desire and it’s likely this employee will begin to arrive later or even slip right back into old habits, further affirming the manager’s belief. And so the downward spiral goes. This behavioural cycle can be applied to endless other performance scenarios.
The syndrome is a costly business
In this case there is serious cost to the subordinate, the manager and the organisation.
- The organisation fails to get the value from disengaged employees.
- There is an emotional cost to the subordinate which also results in disengagement which then means the organisation is failing to get even the minimum value from the employee.
- It’s difficult for a manager to keep up the Mr. Nice Guy act that’s skin deep and is a significant distraction from the main game.
- “A lack of faith in perceived weaker performers can tempt bosses to overload those whom they consider superior performers: bosses want to entrust critical assignments to those who can be counted on to deliver reliably and quickly and to those who will go beyond the call of duty because of their strong sense of share fate.” HBR Page 62
In other words, you burn out your best at the expense of the underperformers.
- And there is little that people love more than to tell you about what’s going wrong at work and whose fault it is, so you can bet there is some real water cooler gossip action underway and it’s not boosting team morale.
So what can you do?
Like all of these improvement opportunities, first things first, you need to know there is an opportunity. So it’s time for a little soul searching. What’s difficult is we all need to accept the part we play in order to break the cycle.
If you recognise this cycle, then it’s a matter of breaking through it with a carefully planned and challenging conversation.
Conducted on neutral territory, the conversation should not be couched as feedback, but rather as an opportunity to discuss performance and the relationship between the boss and subordinate.
You need agree on what is causing the relationship challenges and tension. Firstly you acknowledge that a tension exists and identify and agree on the symptoms that signify the tension.
It is important to agree on performance expectations. This is best done by reaching a shared understanding of the desirable performance outcomes.
Lastly, the boss and subordinate need to agree to have the relationship move forward positively and to open up regular communication.
Love to hear your comments about your experiences.
Ref: Harvard Business Review,HBR’s 10 Must Reads – On Managing People, 2011, Harvard Business School Publishing Corp, USA