Being Setup for Failure

Employers don’t hire people – or assign them a project or task – in the hopes they will fail.  And employees don’t take on a job, project, or task in the hopes they will fail.  On the contraire, the expectations all around are that the outcome will be successful.

Certainly, sometimes the outcomes are not successful.  But these unsuccessful outcomes are generally more tolerated – even expected – in companies that are in their early stages or have a company culture that is more entrepreneurial and not so risk adverse.  And when an unsuccessful outcome in such companies occurs, it’s usually a disappointment (and you certainly don’t want to make being unsuccessful a habit), but it’s not usually a negative mark on the employee.

Such is usually not the case in companies that are more mature, staid, and risk averse; tending to play defense instead of offense in hopes they can protect what they have built.  These are the “braces and belts” companies.  Not being successful, indeed failing, is not only undesired, but also not tolerated.

But sometimes, whether consciously or not, employees are being setup for failure.  How can you tell, and what can you do about it?

So here are two rules that are sure-fire indicators of your being setup for failure;

If you have responsibility and accountability without authority; you are being setup for failure.

What this means is that you have been given a charge.  It might be a project or a simple task.  You are going to be measured on its being successful or not.  Accordingly, you have been given responsibility for the task being successfully completed, and you are being held accountable for its being successfully completed.  But, if you have no authority to make the decisions and implement the efforts necessary for the project or task to be successfully completed, it becomes your personal Kobayashi Maru; the no-win situation.

The countermeasure to avoid this trap is to not accept the project or task unless you have explicit authority, in writing (remember, if it’s not written, it doesn’t exist).  This is especially true if you suspect as much; that you are being setup to be the fall-guy.  Without this authority being in writing, only doom awaits.  And don’t be afraid to wield the authority (prudently, of course).

If your leadership believes you are not going to be successful; you are being setup for failure.

Oftentimes, a person might find themselves in a role where they have not previously demonstrated a level of proficiency.  And there is great peril if you are assigned to such a position without a formalized on-boarding process. There might be (probably will be) doubts as to whether you can deliver on the responsibilities.  These doubts will be amplified if you also have a new person to whom you are reporting.  And be especially wary if you find yourself in this role “because we needed someone and couldn’t find the right candidate for the job.”

This will often lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy; they believe you will fail, therefore they expect you to fail, and they will offer little support because they feel it’s a waste of investment.  And worse, when you do fail, they will feel vindicated as being right all along.

If you are an employer reading this; don’t be this way.  If you hire someone – especially if you know that person is going to struggle in their new role – it is your responsibility to do everything in your power to make that person successful.  It is best for them, it is best for you, and it is best for your company.

The countermeasure as an employee is to avoid this trap.  Do an honest self-assessment before you accept the new role; what strengths and weaknesses do you have?  And also do an assessment of the resources you will have at your disposal for their strengths and weaknesses.  Have a plan for how you will fill the gaps before you accept the role.

If you have a gut feeling you are being setup for failure. 

Maybe it is just the company culture or the way your manger is, and you will need to learn how to cope with the challenges and deploy various countermeasure (or leave, which is a countermeasure in itself).  Here are some signs that might be less obvious (and maybe not directed specifically at you) where your being successful might be in jeopardy.

  • Working in a toxic environment.  You are frustrated and have no direction and don’t know what you should be doing or for whom.  You must fake being positive and work to repress unprofessional behavior.  You are afraid to speak with anyone about your struggles and don’t even know who that person might be in which you can confide or air things out.  You feel powerless and find yourself full of worry and downtrodden to the point where your head is hanging, your feet are dragging, and your head is in a fog.
  • Lack of professionalism.  People are barking orders, being rude, or going into a rage.  They are enforcing policies in an uneven way – perhaps even showing favoritism.  They are openly bringing others down by ridiculing them or taunting.  They are failing to respect the chain of command by always going above a person’s head directly to the bigger boss.  Or they are betraying confidences and using the information for political gain or torment. 

I always find that most people can trust their gut. If it feels like there is something wrong, there probably is and you need to figure out what that is (it might be with you).

If you enjoy what you do, you will never work a day in your life.

These were words of advice my father gave me when I was very young.  I have found this to be some of the best advice he ever gave me (there were many others).  This is not to say that every day should be a walk in the park full of bliss with the sun shining and the birds chirping.  That is a rather unreasonable expectation.

But what is reasonable is a person expects to find joy, satisfaction, respect, and the feeling of being valued in the things they do; especially in their job where they will spend one-quarter of their working life.  If people don’t feel that way about their job, most will try to improve their situation by reaching out and getting the support they need (at least letting know there is a need); or they will just leave. Some will stay, but they will not work for your company, but at your company.

As an employee, if you can’t find the joy in your work, and you get to a point where the joy can’t be found – then you should find the intestinal fortitude and leave.  Sure, it takes guts to make the decision to leave.  But leave you must or you run the risk of becoming the type of person you don’t like, working at a company you don’t like. 

When I was going to University, I worked at Radio Shack.  The manager was a very supportive person and tried to ensure there was harmony at work, but we were still hitting the objectives.  He had one habit that stuck with me; whenever it was payday, he would personally hand out the paychecks (when payrolls were actually paid by check and not bank transfer).  As he handed out each one, he would look at the employee in the eyes, shake their hand, and say “Thank You”.  It was a small act, but it told me I was respected and I was valued.

It does not take a lot of energy to be respectful.  Why that is not the “default setting” escapes me.  I would argue that it takes less energy than to be otherwise.  Don’t lose an employee because they are not feeling respected or are being given tasks where then cannot succeed.  If you are going to lose them, lose them for the right reasons; that one of you have grown to the point where you need to part ways.  If you did things right, hopefully, you will recognize this as something that is natural and necessary and not an indictment on you or your company.

And whatever you do, support your employees. Don’t set them up for failure.

About the author

Paris is an international expert in the field of Operational Excellence, organizational design, strategy design and deployment, and helping companies become high-performance organizations.  His vehicles for change include being the Founder of; the XONITEK Group of Companies; the Operational Excellence Society; and the Readiness Institute.

He is a sought-after speaker and lecturer and his book, “State of Readiness” has been endorsed by senior leaders at some of the most respected companies in the world.

Click here to learn more about Joseph Paris or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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