In most cases, it’s not advisable for a professional to make a habit of blaming others for the less-than-ideal parts of their work life. Taking responsibility for your own actions contributes tremendously to your overall sense of satisfaction in the office, and believing that your boss or your colleagues “have it out” for you won’t improve an undesirable situation.
However, in certain circumstances, it's possible the manager you're working under truly doesn't have your ability to succeed at heart. One common way to spot this type of supervisor is by observing the way they react to mistakes. A manager who isn't motivated by the idea of their employees succeeding may respond to a mistake in an unconstructive manner, precipitating a pattern of dysfunction that can only be described as a vicious cycle. Harvard Business School published a full breakdown of this unfortunate phenomenon, which they call the “set-up-to-fail syndrome." If you suspect that your boss may be promoting this difficult workplace dynamic, keep an eye out for these four problematic behaviors.
While mistakes made at work can cause challenges and annoyances, strong managers know that their employees are human and that the occasional error will occur. Managers with an investment in maintaining good relationships with their subordinates address the mistakes in a timely fashion and then work with the employee to prevent their repetition.
However, a less-capable manager may react to a minor mistake with a full 180-degree shift in attitude and approach. Even if she's typically pretty relaxed, she’ll suddenly turn a laser focus on you, expecting you to double and triple-check each assignment, requiring you to obtain official approval before starting routine tasks, and outwardly questioning your input at team meetings.
Harvard Business Review describes the fallout of a boss’s sudden hypervigilance like so:
“These actions are intended to boost performance and prevent the subordinate from making errors. Unfortunately, however, subordinates often interpret the heightened supervision as a lack of trust and confidence. In time, because of low expectations, they come to doubt their own thinking and ability, and they lose the motivation to make autonomous decisions or to take any action at all. The boss, they figure, will just question everything they do—or do it himself anyway.”
TL;DR: Your boss’s obvious lack of confidence will drain your morale and cause you to second-guess everything you do at work, compromising your confidence and efficiency.
Ultimately, your boss’s refusal to let you work autonomously becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your work performance suffers as a result, and your boss may choose to respond by cutting back on your assignment load.
Of course, this only inflates the problem, as HBR points out. “What bosses typically do not realize is that their tight controls end up hurting subordinates’ performance by undermining their motivation in two ways: first, by depriving subordinates of autonomy on the job and, second, by making them feel undervalued. Tight controls are an indication that the boss assumes the subordinate can’t perform well without strict guidelines. When the subordinate senses these low expectations, it can undermine his self-confidence,” HBR writers Jean-François Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux explain.
This cycle hinges on a lack of communication; the boss responds to an error in a disproportionate manner, the employee feels confused and devalued, and no one directly addresses these disparities, allowing them to grow and deepen. The end point may come when the employee quits or the manager chooses to fire that person, but if it never escalates to that point, you could just end up with a silent-treatment dynamic between the boss and her report. Obviously, this tactic isn’t advisable or productive, and it threatens to damage the performance of the team as a whole.
These signs suggest a borderline-toxic relationship between an employee and her supervisor, and the regrettable persistence of the cycle makes it a difficult pattern to break. Addressing the issues directly with your boss might provide you with an opening to change direction, but if your boss doesn’t tend to approach problems in a reasonable manner, shining a light on the issue might exacerbate this negative dynamic.
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