When an employee fails—or even just performs poorly—managers typically do not blame themselves. The employee doesn’t understand the work, a manager might contend. Or the employee isn’t driven to succeed, can’t set priorities, or won’t take direction. Whatever the reason, the problem is assumed to be the employee’s fault—and the employee’s responsibility.
But is it? Sometimes, of course, the answer is yes. Some employees are not up to their assigned tasks and never will be, for lack of knowledge, skill, or simple desire. But sometimes—and we would venture to say often—an employee’s poor performance can be blamed largely on his boss.
Perhaps “blamed” is too strong a word, but it is directionally correct. In fact, our research strongly suggests that bosses—albeit accidentally and usually with the best intentions—are often complicit in an employee’s lack of success. (See the insert “About the Research.”) How? By creating and reinforcing a dynamic that essentially sets up perceived underperformers to fail. If the Pygmalion effect describes the dynamic in which an individual lives up to great expectations, the set-up-to-fail syndrome explains the opposite. It 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.