Organizations have a low tolerance for underperformers. Yet research conducted by these authors strongly indicates that the cause of under performance is not necessarily a lack of talent, but the very – and very wrong – behaviour of managers. Changing that behaviour will enable lowly regarded subordinates to perform and produce.
A recurring theme in today’s business press is the notion that companies are engaged in a “war for talent.” The idea is that success in a hyper- competitive marketplace comes to those firms that can best identify, attract, retain and motivate top talent. The problem with this mindset is that it tends to downplay and, arguably, even stifle, the development of those who are not considered “high flyers.”
This article discusses the mechanisms that lead too many companies to sub-optimize the contribution and potential of those employees who are perceived as “weaker performers.” It’s an issue that concerns bosses at every level of the hierarchy from first-line managers right up to CEOs – namely, how to get the best from all their direct reports, particularly those in whom they have less confidence.
Most bosses find it relatively easy, or at least comparatively easier, to have the better performers report to them. Those subordinates typically take charge of problems, are open to change, have good ideas, and make good on their commitments. The problem is that not all direct reports are such good workers. Leaders also have to deal with subordinates who are far less proactive, energetic or conscientious, and who show little inclination to “surpass themselves.” They are not really unsatisfactory, but their performance is rarely more than adequate. Those employees often consume more than their fair share of the leader’s energy and attention, and cause considerable frustration for the leader. Indeed, making sure that their performance remains acceptable is a leader’s major preoccupation. The puzzle, highlighted by our research, is that bosses typically deal with these “satisfactory underperformers” in a way that not only fails to improve the situation, but often makes it worse. It’s a phenomenon we have called the Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome. Let’s now consider how and why this happens, and what bosses can do about it.
The wrong stuff
Simply put, the set-up-to-fail syndrome is a vicious spiral that drags down two perfectly reasonable and competent people, and results in diminished performance and an increased malaise. The key point is that it is neither about bad bosses, nor about pathological subordinates; it’s just about well-meaning people who get caught in a dysfunctional dynamic. So what’s the trigger?
The problem starts when a boss begins to suspect that a subordinate somehow lacks “the right stuff.” Our research highlights how quickly and insidiously these doubts can enter the boss’s mind. Performance shortcomings on the subordinate’s part can, and often do, play a role in triggering the boss’s initial concerns. But studies showing that boss-subordinate relationships become predictable after as little as one week of interactions suggest that other factors, unrelated to performance, are also influential. In fact, our surveys show that the boss’s initial misgivings often have more to do with the subordinate’s perceived attitude than with actual performance. Whether justified or not, the boss’s loss of faith in the subordinate sets off the vicious spiral.
To head off potential performance problems, the boss increases the time and attention devoted to the subordinate. For example, the boss provides specific instructions up front and makes more forceful suggestions; the boss monitors the subordinate’s results more closely and jumps in at the first sign of trouble. Or perhaps the boss insists on signing off on decisions concerning the employee’s area and asks to see more paperwork documenting those decisions. Such measures are designed to help boost performance and to prevent the subordinate from making errors. But that is not how those measures come across. Our research shows that performers perceived as being weaker often react badly to their boss’s increased supervision and control – leading to a decline rather than an improvement in performance. Why does this happen? There are three fundamental reasons.
1. Confirmation biases
As soon as a boss starts to have reservations about an employee, a number of confirmation biases are activated in the boss’s mind. Organizational behavior is full of ambiguous circumstances and outcomes that can be read one way or another. Once an employee is doubted, those ambiguous situations are likely to be viewed in a negative way. In other words, bosses are going to see what they expect to see, remember what they want to remember, and interpret confusing events in ways that bear out their initial impressions.
Over half a century ago, Harold Kelley, the American psychology professor and the founder of attribution theory, provided a classic illustration of that bias by presenting a guest lecturer to students. Half of the students were told to expect someone described as “rather cold, industrious, critical, practical, and determined.” For the other half of the class, the words “rather cold” were replaced with “very warm.” When asked to assess the instructor afterwards, those who expected him to be warm gave him significantly higher ratings than their colleagues. They found him more considerate, informal, sociable and even humorous. Simply substituting two words in the description was sufficient to draw the students’ attention to different aspects of his performance.
A similar phenomenon presents itself when bosses identify “weaker performers” on their teams, and start to dwell on their failures and overlook their successes. How could well-meaning bosses fail to recognize or comment on the successes of certain subordinates? Quite simply, it is because the outcome is assumed to be attributable to luck, circumstances or someone else’s help, rather than to the individual’s judgment, effort or competence.
2. Lower expectations
Beyond the issue of selective perception, there is also the boss’s attitudes and behavior. The boss’s more controlling approach says “lower expectations,” which affects the subordinate’s motivation. The lower expectations are conveyed in all manner of behaviors, from sighs of impatience or frustration, to reduced eye contact, nodding or smiling and less time for banter. Individual subordinates notice these things because they are highly sensitive to the comparative signals sent out by their boss. They watch their boss interact with them and their colleagues, they listen to what the boss says or doesn’t say, they see the body language, they hear the tone and the sincerity of the encouragement. Bosses reveal their true opinions of their direct reports in countless ways.
The influence of a boss’s expectations on a subordinate’s performance is highlighted in two bodies of research, known as the Pygmalion and Golem effects. Studies in numerous settings indicate that the performance of individuals adjusts up or down according to the expectations of powerful others. Manipulating the expectations of teachers, platoon leaders or bosses regarding the potential of their charges has a clear impact on the performance of those subjects compared to control groups. In other words, false information about the aptitude of an individual can produce real performance differences over time. More worrying still, a study by Dov Eden, a management professor at Tel-Aviv University, reveals that it takes as little as one week for subordinates to detect and internalize those expectations – and for the effects to become apparent in lower test scores! This suggests that, whatever their true capabilities, people’s resistance to low expectations has its limits and is often short lived. Why should this be the case? Because once people lose confidence in their ability, they begin to question their thinking, they become anxious about their performance, they hesitate to take risks and, expecting to be blamed, they intensify their search for excuses. They end up focusing more on what could go wrong, than on ways of making good things happen.
3. Fewer chances to shine
While the boss’s lack of consideration and encouragement certainly does not help a subordinate’s performance, the fact is that there are also real performance constraints on the perceived weaker performer. The most obvious example is the type of job assignments handed out. Imagine stepping into the shoes of a perceived weaker performer; how can you “prove the boss wrong” when all you get are routine tasks? And the problem is likely to be compounded by resource-allocation decisions that tend to restrict your independence, the possibilities to develop or pursue ideas, and your chance to shine. In fact, many other constraints emerged from our research, especially when we asked executives whether they distinguished between higher and lower performers and how they behaved towards them.
A recurring criticism of weaker performers is that they “lack big picture perspective.” Bosses told us that weaker performers tend to be more parochial and often get immersed in details. Yet, those same bosses also told us that the great thing about better performers is that you can treat them as sparring partners and sounding boards, while with others, you can’t exchange or engage in give and take. Well, if you don’t exchange a lot on the big picture, how do you expect subordinates to know the big picture? Similarly, bosses fault their weaker performers for not delegating well to their own troops. Then again, how can they delegate when they themselves are not autonomous. And how can they leave much rope to their own subordinates when their boss is breathing down their necks and closely monitoring their every move?
Seen from the subordinate’s angle, it’s the classic Catch-22 situation: To escape, you have to perform better; but in order to be seen to perform better, you need to benefit from the support, attention and challenges only given to the better performers. You cannot hope to match the standards of a higher performer, given the boss’s treatment of you and biased reading of your efforts.
Subordinates respond in kind
The difficulty of breaking out of the Catch-22 situation helps to explain why many subordinates simply give up trying to change their boss’s mind. Seeing that that their boss lacks confidence in them, they may be entitled to think, “What is this? I am a good person and a competent employee. If the boss doesn’t like or trust me, there must be something wrong with him/her.” This triggers exactly the same cognitive biases in reverse.
So, from the moment the subordinate starts labeling the boss as hard to influence or potentially hostile, the ambiguous actions that the boss takes every day will be interpreted in that negative light. Subordinates who see their boss as stubborn will notice and remember the times when the boss was inflexible, but dismiss or forget the important issues on which the boss showed openness. And any decision that goes against the subordinate will be seen as evidence of unfairness or vindictiveness on the part of the boss, rather than a reflection of the boss’s stress or resource constraints.
In addition to their biased perceptions, subordinates can incite their bosses to behave badly. If, as a subordinate, you think your boss is coercive and you want to show that this is the case, there are many ways of getting the boss to act harshly. You can raise issues that you know the boss does not want raised or which the boss considers already settled. You can catch your boss off guard or at a time when the boss simply does not have the bandwidth to process the suggestion you are making. You can do a number of things that are, deliberately or not, going to push the boss’s buttons yet allow you to turn around afterwards and say, “You see, I told you he wouldn’t listen.” So, just as bosses can drive subordinates to underperform, subordinates can drive bosses to behave unreasonably.
Why would a subordinate act in this self-defeating way? Most likely in order to deflect the blame and preserve their self-esteem. Getting the boss to react unreasonably confirms the subordinate’s self-image as a “reasonable person” simply working for an “impossible boss.” Of course, this retaliation makes it harder to interrupt the dynamic as both parties now observe the behaviour they were expecting of the other party. The net result is two complementary self-fulfilling prophecies coming from opposite directions.
Cure and prevention
Such powerful interlocking dynamics cannot self-correct. It doesn’t matter who triggered the process; both the boss and the subordinate have created the problem, fuelled by reciprocal biases. And while both parties have contrived to create this dysfunctional relationship, they are not the only ones to suffer because of it. Other members of the team now have to listen to their colleague venting; they sense the unease in team meetings. They also have to take on extra responsibilities not entrusted to their “weaker performing” colleagues. Some team members are overburdened while others feel underemployed. Inevitably, team spirit suffers. Ultimately, the shock waves cascade down to the perceived weaker performer’s own subordinates, who must endure an even more controlling style of leadership from a boss feeling boxed-in and under-resourced.
These unhealthy dynamics are both curable and avoidable – and communication between boss and subordinate is the key in both cases.
Eliminating the syndrome requires a productive intervention, which we liken to a medical procedure. The intervention is usually initiated by the boss but it can only succeed if the subordinate gives the boss and the process a chance. The process first requires the boss to do some thinking in private, followed by an open exchange between the two parties to try to agree on: a) the symptoms (evidence of poor performance); b) the diagnosis (the underlying causes of the problem, including how the boss’s behavior has affected performance); c) the treatment (the specific actions required from both parties to improve the situation); and d) how to avoid a relapse (by providing opportunities to bring up problems earlier).
Preventing the syndrome from developing also relies on communication, but of a different type – as revealed by the examples of bosses who managed to develop positive spirals even with their weaker performers. The essential difference was their ability to create an environment that facilitated communication in both directions — where the subordinate was comfortable volunteering information to the boss, but also willing to accept and act on the boss’s feedback and suggestions. Creating such a context demands that bosses invest more time and energy in the formative period of the relationship, framing the professional side of the relationship but also developing its personal side. When bosses know subordinates as individuals, they are less likely to make snap judgments, crude evaluations or hasty attributions – and they are more likely to question the impact of their behavior by considering, “How would I react if my own boss did this to me?” It’s not rocket science, but nor is it second nature for most bosses.
Getting the best from employees
We have not discovered that it’s hard for bosses to work with their perceived weaker performers. This is something that every manager knows. But our research does challenge conventional wisdom about the causality. We maintain that perceived weaker performers often end up performing increasingly poorly not in spite of their boss’s best efforts, but, in part, because of their boss’s best efforts.
While we do not claim that all those poorer performers could actually have been superstars, we would argue that their potential contribution has been severely limited by the boss. In other words, the clear performance differences are partly driven by a boss’s actions at an earlier stage, specifically when the boss first determined that they were “weaker performers.” Perhaps they really were less competent than their colleagues along certain dimensions, but that is not the question. Our point has to do with the evolution of performance. Instead of putting them on a trajectory of steady improvement, the inadvertent labels that a boss puts on certain subordinates stunted their development — and deprived the boss of those subordinates’ best efforts.
The pervasiveness of this Set-Up-To-Fail phenomenon – in surveys, executives can all think of at least one example in their unit – adds up to a lot of forfeited performance for companies. So, in an environment where firms are spending vast sums of money to attract or hang on to outstanding performers in a “war for talent,” the time may be right to devote a bit more effort to optimizing the untapped talent and unrealized performance already in our midst.