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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.
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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.
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1. For example, J.F. Manzoni and J.L. Barsoux, “The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome,” Harvard Business Review 76, no. 2 (March-April 1998): 101-113.
2. R.C. Liden, S.J. Wayne and D. Stilwell, “A Longitudinal Study on the Early Development of Leader-Member Exchanges,” Journal of Applied Psychology 78, no. 4 (1993): 662-674.
3. L.M. Andersson, “Employee Cynicism: An Examination Using a Contract Violation Framework,” Human Relations 49, no. 11 (1996): 1395-1418.
4. K.J. Dunegan, “Leader-Image Compatibility: An Image Theory View of Leadership,” Journal of Business and Management (winter 2003).
5. J.P. Forgas, “Affect and Information Processing Strategies: An Interactive Relationship,” in “Feeling and Thinking: The Role of Affect in Social Cognition,” ed. J.P. Forgas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 253-280.
6. L. Ross, “The Intuitive Psychologist and His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process,” in “Advances in Experimental Social Psychology,” ed. L. Berkowitz (New York: Academic Press, 1977), 173-220.
7. For example, H. Kelley, “The Warm-Cold Variable in First Impressions of Persons,” Journal of Personality 18 (1950): 431-439; and D.J. Simons and C.F. Chabris, “Gorillas in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events,” Perception 28 (1999): 1059-1074.
8. S.L. Hannigan and M.T. Reinitz, “A Demonstration and Comparison of Two Types of Inference-Based Memory Errors,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 27, no. 4 (2001): 931-940.
9. P.M. Sias, “Constructing Perceptions of Differential Treatment: An Analysis of Coworker Discourse,” Communication Monographs 63 (1996): 171-187.
10. S.G. Barsade and D.E. Gibson, “Why Does Affect Matter in Organizations?” Academy of Management Perspectives 21, no.1 (2007): 36-59.
11. K. Leung, S. Su and M. Morris, “When Is Criticism Not Constructive? The Roles of Fairness Perceptions and Dispositional Attributions in Employee Acceptance of Critical Supervisory Feedback,” Human Relations 54, no. 9 (2001): 1155-1187.
12. E.R. Hirt, R.K. Deppe and L.J. Gordon, “Self-Reported Versus Behavioral Self-Handicapping: Empirical Evidence for a Theoretical Distinction,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 61, no. 6 (1991): 981-991.
13. D.T. Gilbert, B.W. Pelham and D.S. Krull, “On Cognitive Busyness: When Person Perceivers Meet Persons Perceived,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54, no. 5 (1988): 733-740.
14. R.M. Dienesch and R.C. Liden, “Leader-Member Exchange Model of Leadership: A Critique and Further Development,” Academy of Management Review 11 (1986): 618-634; and, more recently, M.C. Bolino, “What About Us? Relative Deprivation Among Out-Group Members in Leader-Member Exchange Relationships,” Academy of Management Proceedings (2007): 1-5.
15. F. Dansereau, G. Graen and W. J. Haga, “A Vertical Dyad Linkage Approach to Leadership Within Formal Organizations: A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role Making Process,” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 13 (1975): 46-78.
16. R.A. Eckert, “Where Leadership Starts,” Harvard Business Review 79, no. 10 (November 2001): 53-60.
i. J.F. Manzoni “Use of Quantitative Feedback by Superiors: Causes and Consequences” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration, 1993).