Are Your Subordinates Setting You Up to Fail?

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.

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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.

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.



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).

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Comments (6)
virendra kumar
This is wonderful article and a live issue. For any position , in any organisation , there are two options -either take a outside candidate or promote from inside. If the system is absolutely fair and process is followed meticulously , right candidate will be picked up who is supposed to perform. If the right candidate is from outside, invariably he will face problems .Even inside candidate faces problems but of different nature. I have seen it happening and I assume this happens in most of the organisations. Most of the organisations, you will find matrix system of reporting and by any chance, if adequate support is not there for new entry from other stake holders, life can be difficult.
Entire scenario depends upon , how much political is the organisation and what is the level of the position. If it is not leadership position , then role of CEO becomes very critical . If it is CEO position , regional support becomes critical. This is the reason why most of the CEO brings own team in very short or short term. In fact, his own insecurity or political acumen also plays a role , depending upon cultural context. This is a dynamic situation and yes, subordinates do set up the CEO for failure if he is not astute.
Tom Brewer
Such a great insight to what happens. Just got fired for not being able to establish trust in a disfunctional world. Previous boss fired, other manager wanted job, other manager was quitting if previous boss didn't shape up, that same manager wanted promotion, boss before previous boss who was fired got regional promotion , staff didn't like change, managers always like to catch you doing something wrong and the list goes on and on. Wish I read this article a few months ago
Tom Brewer
A couple of observations. One is what is said about you after you've been recruited, and before you arrive. If your boss has trailed your arrival with: 'x will change, or y will be expected when newperson arrives' then you may be walking into a hornet's nest. Best to ask what they've been told in that initial 1:1. Body language can also say a lot. 

The other is to note which individuals might have thought that your job should have been theirs. They may not have had the confidence, skills or experience to apply, nor have been supported to do so, but still resentments may simmer. Key indicators include refusal to give over responsibilities that really belong to you, or super-capability by direct reports so that you can add nothing to anything they are doing. 

The only real solution if you want to keep everyone onside is to build up trust through appropriate praise and encouragement, and becoming known for removing any obstacles or confusions efficiently - in other words, earn your position.
Excellent article and it really makes you think I know I am the lead in my department and as a leader I do have a subordinate that has several times tried to set me up for failure and I have bit my tongue on several occasions with this person and I try to build up my patience wall again and look for ways to keep this person on the right track. Even my own boss says I need to treat with kid gloves because this person is one that needs constant supervision and you have to tell this person what they need to do everytime and this is getting old to. Right now this person has a severe lying problem and now it is hard to trust this person anymore. Deep down I hope the boss just lets this person go. This person is what I call and quoted in the article "dead wood". This person refused to conform to way things need to be and what is worse I have tried and tried again to train this person in the processes that we have in Inspection and how things are to be inspected and yet this person goes out of the way to do his way and not the company way. Yes I agree there are many subordinates that feel they are more superior then the boss. I am now to the point the investing anymore time is a waste of precious time and money. This article is worth the time to read. Thanks
Resistance to chance makes Boss difficult in managing subordinate. I agree that the Boss should invest early in subordination and intervene. However things could be more complicated if the Superior of the Boss does not aware or do not want to aware the situation.

This could make subordinate fail the Boss.
Excellent point which are very true in the current business world.


Sudindar Rao