Are Your Employees Set Up to Fail?

In The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome, by Manzoni and Barsoux, the authors describe how managers set employees up for success or failure, often within minutes. Employee motivation begins in your mind, before it gets triggered in an employee. The same is true of teachers and students or parents and children...our expectations determine their success or failure.

Instant Assessment

Using what NLP calls "matching and mirroring," it's possible to establish rapport with someone you've never met in 60 seconds or less. It's also possible to blow rapport with someone by mismatching in 60 seconds or less. This may explain why Manzoni and Barsoux found that executives distinguished between high and low performers quickly, often in less than 30 minutes. To determine how executives distinguished between the two, the authors had over 3,000 executives fill in the blanks in these statements:

Better performers tend to ____ and tend to be ____.
Poor performers tend to ___ and tend to be ____.

Poor performers tended to be classified as:

  • less motivated and energetic and unlikely to go beyond the call of duty
  • less self-motivated, requiring more direction
  • poor communicators
  • less proactive, more reactive
  • less innovative and open to change
  • detail-oriented, less big picture
  • weaker leaders
  • more likely to bring problems than solutions

Beliefs Lead to Actions

From this list, executives adjusted their behavior with these poor performers to:

  • be more directive
  • set targets and deadlines
  • follow up regularly
  • focus on tasks not relationship
  • overrule the subordinate
  • assign more routine projects
  • be more distant physically and emotionally

Actions Lead to Consequences

Which causes the "poor" performer to:

  • become less autonomous
  • avoid the initiative
  • avoid delegating authority to their subordinates
  • avoid going beyond the call of duty
  • avoid asking for help
  • be defensive and use excuses
  • avoid innovation because it will be overruled

The Vicious Reinforcing Loop

So begins a vicious reinforcing loop. The executive expects lower performance and behaves in ways that encourage poor performance! The executive's expectation fuels the subordinate's behavior and the subordinate's behavior reinforces the executive's assessment.

Once a person is "tagged" as a poor performer, they tend to stay there. It's difficult to break free of these initial assessments. And it's difficult for executives to free themselves of the instant assessment trap.

This is also true of the superior performer. Once tagged or classified in the executive's mind, they can do no wrong which can lead to catastrophic consequences.

The Leader's Solution

First and foremost, remember that your expectations, at least partially, determine the subordinates success or failure.

  1. Frame the relationship: priorities and measures, as well as your management style.
  2. Invest in the relationship
  3. Resist the urge to label the person
  4. Monitor your evaluations
  5. Intervene early by asking questions to elicit their understanding of your concerns. (Ask, don't tell.)
  6. Encourage autonomy, but be available to give help.
  7. Separate the subordinate's behavior from their identity. Identity statements use some form of the verb "to be." Behavior statements use verbs of activity. Instead of saying "John, you are a slacker" (identity), consider asking: "John, you seem to hesitate before starting on projects. I'm wondering what stops you?" (Behavior)

The Employee's Solution

Remember: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. You have 30 seconds to 30 minutes to lock in a place in your leader's mind. Use them wisely. It will determine your success over the course of employment.

If you've been plunked into the poor performer category, you have two choices:

1. Quit and find a new job
2. Make it your intention to reposition yourself in your leader's mind.

It takes longer to reestablish rapport than it does to blow it, so don't expect changes overnight. But you can systematically demonstrate a proactive, innovative, solution-oriented way of going about your work that will change the leader's mind.

Where Else?

In Who Really Matters, Art Kleiner discusses the phenomenon social psychologists call the hidden curriculum. "In most institutions, (and particularly in schools), there is an unspoken message that one group of people fits in better than anyone else. The primary factor that separates the favored from the unfavored is knowledge of subtle forms of behavior that signal your membership in the elite." What is the real purpose of school? To teach students how to adapt to an overarching culture.

Teachers set expectations for students. Parents set expectations for children. Customers set expectations for suppliers. While the child, student or supplier never gets a second chance to make a first impression, teachers, parents and customers can choose the high road and set great expectations for every child, student or supplier.

Here's My Point

Other people's motivation begins in your mind, not theirs. Set high expectations and people will live up to them. Set low expectations and people will live down to them. Lead people up; don't let them slide down. It's your choice. Which path will you choose?

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008-2024 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, 888-468-1537, ."