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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 16-Apr-09


Thursday 16-April-09

Set up to fail

Have you ever been in a situation at work where you seem doomed to failure, whichever way you turn? The 'set-up-to-fail syndrome' is a known phenomenon whereby people get put into situations where it may appear on the face of it that they have a fair chance of success, yet the reality is that, no matter how talented they are, there is little real chance of succeeding.

An example of set-up-to-fail is where a manager is told to increase manufacturing productivity in a division where business is bad and, unbeknownst to her, there are worsening employee relations, increasing trade union militancy and an entrenched executive board who have already decided to make swingeing cuts. With so much change and chaos in the offing, tweaking manufacturing methods is going to meet with resistance at all levels.

So is it deliberate? Is it a power play to 'put you in your place' or to create reason for dismissal? The answer is 'sometimes'. More often it is caused by limited understanding in a broader context of systemic failure.

A typical situation is that a manager sees a tricky problem and, unable to understand the detail, cognitively simplifies it, leaving out crucial detail. They still realize the risk involved, however, and so pass on the hot potato to others.

An important lesson when you are offered a new job is to find out why the last person left. They may have realized they were on a losing wicket and quit before things went all pear-shaped. Ask about the detail of the work and decide whether it is do-able or whether it would be better to look elsewhere. .

Your comments

Aaahhh - but then there is the delusions of grandeur we suffer - thinking we can succeed where others have failed. It is just so tempting. (I blogged about it in the context of the Susan Boyle Youtube vid) - fascinating...

-- Dennis

Dave replies:
Well I guess we're all delusional to some extent. And isn't it grand when we sometimes surprise even ourselves at how things turn out. For the uninitiated, Susan Boyle is an orgdinary-looking 40-something who blew away Simon Cowell and the other 'Britain's Got Talent' judges with a remarkable singing voice. Within a week, she's also a star on YouTube with over 20 million hits so far.

I wonder if someone can help me...after doing a little research, I have now discovered that my manager is a transactional style manager. How do I know this? Because this website clearly laid out the characteristics of leaders versus managers, as well as transactional versus transformational management. I know what to call my enemy now. However, nowhere have I found any information about how to deal with this.

Here are the results of his style of management for me: He nick-picks my work to pieces, he watches my time reporting with an eagle eye, he questions just about everything I do and wants to know why I did this or that this way or that way. Last week, he grilled me for 20 minutes on an email that I HADN'T EVEN SENT!!! Yes, it feels like a flogging every time we meet to discuss my work. He will not listen to my suggestions, even though I am a 20-year veteran in my field, I have 3 degrees, and I teach my subject at a local community college. As a result of this, I am unmotivated, I have no hope of ever amounting to anything, I have no desire to do better, and I feel hopeless. These negative feelings have all grown as a result of his bullying management, and I can hardly bear it. I am even now looking for another position outside the company.

My work has always been exemplary, and now I feel like an uneducated, ignorant moron. Can you please help me deal with this horrid treatment??? How can I possibly stand up under what I consider oppressive treatment. On the other hand, proving this will be difficult, as he is quite the manipulator, and he is in the good graces of his manager. You might think that I'm exaggerating, but others are beginning to see him as he is. Please help me.

-- Pamela

Dave replies
Pamela, I feel for you! You're not alone and many suffer this micromanagement. My wife has been teaching longer than her head of department has been alive, yet her HoD still likes to wisely go through lesson plans criticizing minor detail. There are several strategies you can take. The easiest if you're not in a hurry and are safe yourself is patience. Just wait and they'll eventually move on. Then of course there's 'cover your ass' protection, creating and keeping evidence of your performance, particularly if your manager seeks to blame you for his own failings. A neat method is to figure out his needs and play to them -- he seems to have strong control needs so keep him well-informed as to what is going on. Test how he responds to flattery -- bullies often have identity issues and propping them up can soften them. Bullies also are often cowards so watch for problems and opportunities here though beware of making an enemy of him unless you're sure of your way out. And indeed planning an exit yourself may be a valid way of handling the situation.

 I know EXACTLY how you feel. Take it from me: If your manager is going to be there for a while...GET OUT! You owe it to yourself to NOT put yourself through that every day.

I was one of many in a few years to hold my position. My manager preferred a stressful work environment, (I think because it made him feel more important.) It was like he would go out of his way to make things more stressful for everyone...pushing things to the last minute, throwing unnecessary curve balls at you, etc. Same behavior: nit-picking, questioning everything I did, manipulating things I did to seem wrong when ultimately they weren' sounds like you know what I'm talking about.

Ultimately, my confidence diminished and the stress got to me. I was a rock star at all past jobs, so I was trying extra hard to swing everything back in my favor. But, there wasn't much that could be done no matter how hard I tried. It's like he was determined, and I was just set up to fail.

I tried the "cover your ass" routine where I got everything I could in writing, etc. That just seemed to frustrate him when I showed I was right or he was contradicting himself, thus making him try harder.
Work became a living hell. I was working 30+ hours overtime (not paid because it was salary), waking up with nightmares about work, gaining weight, started smoking, got temperamental toward my supportive fiance, and inches away from depression. I couldn't eat breakfast or lunch during the week. I got to where all I felt I could do was sit on a rock. I felt like my whole career and all my life choices were a mistake. I think I actually had a nervous breakdown.

It felt like he smelled fresh blood, and pounced like a wolf, making life at work a real living hell. Finally, I realized it wasn't a choice to stay anymore...I had to leave because it was causing serious damage to my life. Even during the highest unemployment period in the last 40 years, with no job to go to. I worked out the departure to be on good terms.

Needless to say, I ended up leaving. I still have nightmares about that job and I am still struggling with my lack of confidence.

There's no way you'll be able to change your manager. Do you really think he will change for you? He has way more leverage on the decision makers / paycheck writers than you ever will. It's a loosing battle - why not work somewhere where your boss is open to your ideas, appreciates your hard work and wants to work with you to make sure you, them and the company are heading in a positive direction?

I suggest you carefully screen your next manager before accepting a new job, I accepted mine without enough information. Huge mistake to learn from.

I recently started out somewhere making 1/2 as much money than I was, but I like it. Pretty soon, I'll be making more money then I EVER would have at the last place.I work with truly good people and I have an awesome manager who appreciates and respects me. I have time to eat, sleep and exercise, not worry about work when I'm trying to sleep...I just can't tell you how glad I am to be away from that guy. I wanted to confront him, but I've decided to pray for him and his family instead, because they really need it.

Pardon my rant, but I hope this advice helps people avoid the pitfall I fell into. I'm still recovering from the stress, worry, exhaustion, etc. that my last manager put on me to make him feel important.

Nobody deserves that kind of torture. Quit, find a better job, and watch as that guy's position -- or the company -- crumbles to the ground. Do it on the best of terms you can so nothing's suspicious when you apply elsewhere.

LIFE IS TO SHORT to bust your butt over a prick when you could do it somewhere wayyyy better. :)

-- Waynegro

Dave replies:
The main reason people quit jobs, other than career progression, is because of bad management. And indeed it's often the easiest option, especially when the manager in question seems unable to listen or accept any criticism and when there's no way around them.

My wife, a teacher, recently had a tricky case of an inexperienced head of department who broke many of the rules of good management (and a few employment-law ones too). She also was beginning to doubt her ability, but fortunately, she had support, went to the head teacher and things are looking better now (fingers crossed). One of the things that helped her case is that she kept a log of all that was said and done, and took legal advice. It also helped that she was financially able to leave, making this a real option and giving her greater power. I've also seen another person in different organisation quit and send a highly damning email to everyone on the way out (not always a good idea, but it pretty much sunk the manager in question, who left soon after).

Considering what Dave said. Do x,y or z strategies seems like a great compliment to what Waynegro described. Think of it, first you get rid of the heat/attention from appearing complement/conformative. Then maybe even influencing them to be not near you via rapport.

Next comes f'd up status crushing/taking which if done right would make you logically an asset who is trained, a friend so you get the benefit of the doubt and a martyr as a contingency.

The trick to handling the stress is a commitment to getting attention away from you, like driving slower then most appears safer... Coming from someone who can not switch jobs.

I'm no better then most, that strategy works on bully's though, even though in contrast I'm a $800.00 a month earner .

My situation is, I have a mom and uncle who have this need to control others. And he is a doctor my mom retired government and businessowner. I didn't see the co-dependency in their intentions early enough. They basically had me in a giant game of here's a great opportunity. But even though you're maxed out with 4 jobs and full time community college we were kidding about supporting you with transportation. The only catch is if you save they account for that and create bills that you pay from creative shakedowns.

At 27 I dropped everything because I was too confused in every area to let that go on.

Now I work at $8.00 per hour and get 64 hours a check no matter what. Then last week we had a major blackout in southern California and they asked a few guys to stay late. I did, why not right? 3 days later I got written up for not clocking out that night.

So in my company, one "coaching" puts you on probation for freedom to change positions for 2 years, I just found out yesterday after I got done talking about schedule precautions for day wife's new PREGNANCY!

My point is prior to this finger being given to me, I went from 10.50 per hour. To accepting a lesser wage with a promise of quickly moving from a temp position to staff. BUT it's all that's open. Or no job because were done with the remodel.

First they promoted a guy I trained. BECAUSE he bullied me. We push carts and he continuously got in my face and continuously aggressively directed me. I uhhh...retorted...and he used me to raise his status.

Next they promoted the next new trainee guy in a week, everyone telling me hard work would equal promotion. Turned out was a group effort to intentionally keep him inside while I did all the work.

Then 2 months go by and first guy starts trouble with me BECAUSE he knew the night manager was evaluating us, he tried a few off camera assaults but he's really clumsy. So that's when and how I came up with an actual strategy.

I set up a mediated time off a feigned similar fear based complaint I'd issued in the past. Then said stuff like how he's valuable and hard working. That I didn't know of any complaints. But felt like it was urgent to solve any misunderstandings because of our past.

We ended up hugging! LOL And now his identity is solidly forged into backbreaking labor at weird hours muahahaha. And never going to be a problem for a higher wage setting. Because I'm sure he'd try something serious if it REALLY paid.

Okay, the punch line is I train, study, work, read, submerge my self in everything BUT college, because I still need to wait from some sort of probation period for not finishing the final in enough classes. And I have been looking for AND actively applying for any non-food related job (13 years of that already). And everyone assumes I'm lying because I should have graduated or....there has to be a reason I earn poverty level income and have so few opportunities at 28.

I actually fall in this 1.4% of people who can't succeed because they are currently emigrating.

But this is what success looks the beginning. When I'm done I'll have to have mastered more then most cause the odds are legendarily more then most against me.

-- Corleonearmyoftwo

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