Subordinates sometimes make it extremely difficult for their bosses to be good leaders. Executives who fail to understand the forces at play may find their careers in jeopardy.
The last 15 years have seen an explosion in the number of popular books focusing on “bad bosses.” These publications have not only described the “leader from hell” but also have advised subordinates on how to handle toxic or incompetent managers.
More scholarly writers on management have preferred to adopt the perspective of bosses, but much of their writing shares the same underlying emphasis on “what managers are doing wrong,” highlighting the many ways that bosses fail to engage their employees, through lack of communication, authenticity, imagination or emotional intelligence. No matter who is doing the writing, the employees are usually portrayed as well-intentioned, competent individuals who, if half-decently managed, will perform well. There is, of course, some talk about the small proportion of “dead wood” — employees who cannot meet the company’s minimum performance threshold — but the rest are assumed to have what it takes to succeed under the “right kind” of leadership. Implicitly or explicitly, subordinates are treated as receptive individuals waiting only for the boss to offer a productive channel to their intrinsic energies. Indeed, much of our own writing has highlighted the boss’s responsibility for creating unsatisfactory relationships — a phenomenon we labeled the set-up-to-fail syndrome.1 Bosses trigger this dynamic inadvertently through a combination of premature labeling (“I know I’ve been working with him for only three weeks, but it looks like he won’t be very effective”); over-monitoring; and cognitive biases (expecting the employee to fail, the boss looks for places where the employee is underperforming and attributes the employee’s successes to external elements). These three factors distort the way bosses notice, interpret and remember events.
Although we initially identified the subordinate’s contribution to this dynamic, we saw it mostly as retaliation for the boss’s actions. We did not suspect that reasonable subordinates would in some cases play a leading role in triggering and perpetuating unproductive and often painful relationships with their bosses.
Yet, working on boss-subordinate relationships for more than a decade, we have encountered many situations where subordinates, individually or collectively, placed their bosses in no-win situations. (See “About the Research.”) Bosses need to understand why subordinates would engage in such self-defeating behavior in order to avert or intercept these dysfunctional dynamics — not only to make sure their companies perform well but also, sometimes, to save their own jobs.