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Living down to the low expectations

When an employee doesn't work out, a manager is often quick to blame the employee's poor work habits, lackadaisical attitude or inability to meet deadlines. Managers rarely blame themselves but maybe they should, according to recent findings from two researchers.

Many managers set their employees up to fail, said to Jean-Francois Manzoni, assistant professor of INSEAD, a business school in Fontainebleau, France. Manzoni studies how companies deal with change.

The process, which is largely unconscious, works like this:

Managers typically decide which employees are good performers and which are weak, according to Manzoni, who wrote about the "set-up-to-fail syndrome" in the March-April issue of the Harvard Business Review. Sometimes, managers decide in as little as five days whether a particular employee is a good or mediocre performer.

The perception can stem from a personality conflict or maybe a couple of work mistakes, Manzoni said. Once an employee is perceived by the boss as a less-than-stellar performer, it's very difficult to change that perception.

The boss tends to give the perceived good performer a lot of leeway and support. The good performer has the freedom to do the work the way he wants and consequently tends to soar.

The perceived weak performer gets watched carefully. The boss tends to hover over him, setting intermediate deadlines for projects and telling the employee exactly how to do the work, Manzoni said.

The boss is trying to improve performance and prevent mistakes. But the employee perceives the close supervision as a lack of confidence and begins to question his own ability.

The employee, who typically knows he is part of the "out group," loses motivation to make decisions on his own. He finds it is better not to do anything extra because the boss may not like it.

As the employee withdraws, the boss sees that as proof of his initial impression that the employee was a poor performer, Manzoni said. The boss becomes even more controlling and the employee becomes paralyzed. In the worst instances, the employee quits or is fired.

It's true, said Marvin Volz, who was a front-line supervisor for an entertainment center in Houston until he quit recently.

Volz said he had a boss who dictated every small detail, down to when Volz's employees could take their breaks. Volz said he quickly realized he was reluctant to take any initiative.

If you didn't follow the orders exactly, you got reprimanded, he said.

"We just fell in line like good little sheep, I guess," Volz said.

Much like parents who expect their children to perform poorly at school end up with children who turn out to be poor students, employees who are expected to turn in substandard work are generally poor performers. Employees live down to the low expectations that the boss has of them, Manzoni said.

Part of the reason managers view those "poor performers" is the different way people view their own failings and the failings of others, said Steve Currall, assistant professor of the Jones Graduate School of Management at Rice University in Houston.

If they don't do well at work, most people blame the situation, such as their tough boss, a poor compensation scheme or the way the job was designed, Currall said. Most people rarely blame their own prickly personality, lack of intelligence or poor skills for their failings.

But when you judge another person's poor work performance, most folks will point to the employee's argumentative personality, laziness or lack of intelligence, Currall said.

So when a supervisor has what he sees as a poor-performing employee, he is apt to think it is because of internal factors such as intelligence or personality rather than job design, confirming the initial expectation that the employee doesn't have that much promise, Currall said. If the boss sees the problem as stemming from a seemingly unchangeable personal characteristic, he figures why bother spending money on training when the problem is inherent.

It's tough to do, but the cycle can be broken, Manzoni said. It's critical for the boss to talk to the subordinate frankly about how his own behavior might have caused the problem.

It's easier to avoid the spiral in the first place by not labeling employees, and by being as specific as possible early in the relationship about what you expect from an employee, Manzoni said.

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