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 problematic behaviors.
1. After you make a minor error, your boss switches abruptly from a more relaxed and amiable management style to a very hands-on (and hypercritical) one.
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.
2. If you (understandably) react to your boss’s new micromanagement by becoming more withdrawn, she responds by making her lack of confidence more blatant.
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.
3. Your boss stops assigning you your expected workload.
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.
4. Your boss avoids you entirely unless it’s absolutely necessary.
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.
There are signs outside of Harvard's breakdown that also points to your boss taking out their frustrations on you and setting you up to fail — or to quit. Here are a few:
5. Your boss doubles down on their mistakes or makes you double down on yours.
A growth mindset is necessary for professional success — especially in leadership positions. If your boss realizes a mistake or an error in thinking, they should encourage a new way of doing things to get the job done. However, if your boss refuses to change their approach — or requires you to keep doing work that's ineffective — they may be setting you up to fail. They are more worried about being "right" in the eyes of those who are watching than doing things the right way. That behavior almost always gets sniffed out — and putting you on the receiving end of that discovery can lead to career damage.
6. Your boss stops investing the proper resources in you.
If your boss has stopped giving you the resources you need to get your work done, they are subtly letting you (and everyone around you) know that you aren't trusted to do good work. It may be the result of them resenting your behavior or desiring that you move on. This kind of reactionary behavior can come in the form of slashing budget, putting too much on your plate or even just cutting you out of the meetings with them that you need to tackle a project.
7. Your boss makes you spend time on unnecessary tasks, like writing down everything you do.
If your boss is making you do menial tasks like document your daily work, they are taking away one of the most precious resources in the workplace: Time. Time is necessary to get real work done, and distracting you with degrading and unhelpful tasks like documentation can keep you from succeeding. When your boss asks you to spend time satisfying their micromanagment, what they're really saying is that what they want from you is more important than your being successful. That's a bad sign for your career development.
8. Your boss hides or downplays your accomplishments when they happen.
If you are constantly knocking things out of the park but getting none of the credit, it's a sign that your boss doesn't want you to succeed in your organization in the long run. They're blocking you from receiving the social benefits of being a star employee. Plus, they are keeping you from the recognition you deserve to feel motivated and stay successful. Strong managers want their employees to feel like they're doing a great job, because motivation drives results.
9. Your boss blocks communication with colleagues.
If your boss doesn't trust you to represent your team in crossfunctional meetings and cuts you out of important communication, they're setting you up for failure in both the short term and the long term. In the short term, many of us can't be expected to do a good job without the support — literal and figurative — of our colleagues. In the long term, you can't be expected to carve out a space for yourself within an organization without showing face.
10. Your boss is only giving you 'special projects.'
While working on special projects or stretch projects sounds fulfilling and fun, it can also spell disaster for your role. If you're constantly being asked to work on projects that don't necessarily drive the results that average day-to-day work drives, your space within an organization can be precarious. If your stretch projects are experiments that are expected to fail or to "provide learnings" from the beginning, and you're always at the helm of the sinking ship, your boss knows what they're doing to your reputation.