Setting up to fail
Setting up to fail is a term used to describe situations in which persons put themselves, or are put by others, into situations where they cannot succeed. This can have different motivations. A person setting themselves up for failure may do so because they have a fear of failure, an unrealistic assessment of their own abilities, or because they are naive and uninformed regarding the abilities necessary to succeed. In some cases, an individual has an unjustified expectation that they will fail, a self-reinforcing negative spiral, or failure neurosis – perhaps driven by a sense of guilt, or by the compulsion to repeat self-destructive behaviour.
If a person puts another individual (usually a subordinate) in a stressful situation in which failure is almost certain, this may be an aspect of bullying wherein the outcome can then be used as ammunition to discredit and blame the victim. Sometimes, this may involve the bully covertly sabotaging and undermining an objective that may have otherwise been achievable. This type of bullying may be the result of the projection of the bully's own feelings of inadequacy onto the victim.
Finally, there can be cases where an employee is set up to fail because the stated goals of the task are considered harmful to the organization; an internal investigation is one example.
First known documented use
The first known documented use of "set up to fail" is in 1969.
Setting up to fail is a well-established workplace bullying tactic. One technique is to overload with work, while denying the victim the authority to handle it and over-interfering; another is the withholding of the information necessary to succeed.
Institutions may also protect themselves by "Going through the motions" of a sham investigation in which the findings conveniently fail to find any evidence of wrongdoing by the authorities involved with setting up the investigation.
Minorities seeking acceptance into the mainstream are often concerned about being set up to fail in the face of covert institutional racism – something feared for example by the first black US naval officers.
Parents may have excessive expectations of their children, setting them up for failure by hoping they may solve their parents' problems for them. The result may be to create a self-destructive syndrome in the child – the so-called Divine Child complex.
Therapy may be sabotaged by either the client or the provider. The client, both hoping for and fearing the possibility of real help, may impose conditions on the therapy that all but guarantee its failure. Conversely, the helper, needing to keep clients in a state of dependency, may be threatened by the prospect of success/closure, and undermine the therapy accordingly.
In popular culture
- In the 1968 film The Producers, theater producers tried to set up a Broadway show to fail in order to bilk their investors.
- In series two of the 1970s British television series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, the title character tried to set himself up to fail by starting a shop called Grot, which only sold useless goods.
- In the 1994 film The Hudsucker Proxy, a corporation attempts to find a "dimwit, a proxy, a pawn, somebody we can really push around" for CEO, in order to manipulate the stock price to crash so that the board of directors can gain greater control of outstanding shares.
- R. E. Boyatzis/A. McKee, Resonant Leadership (2005) p. 156
- De Mijolla, Alain. "Failure neurosis". Enotes. Retrieved 8 April 2013.
- Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 506
- S, Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11) p. 292-3
- Tim Field, Bully in Sight Success Unlimited (1996) p. 43 ISBN 978-0-9529121-0-1
- S. White, An Introduction to the Psychodynamics of Workplace Bullying (2013) p. 31-2
- Economic Opportunity Amendments of 1969: Hearings, Ninety-first Congress, First Session, on H.R. 513
- Peyton PR Dignity at Work: Eliminate Bullying and Create a Positive Working Environment (2003)
- Rayner C, Hoel H A Summary Review of Literature Relating to Workplace Bullying Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology Volume 7, Issue 3, pages 181–191, June 1997
- Randle J Workplace Bullying in the NHS (2006)
- J-F Manzoni/J-L Barsoux, The Set-up-to-fail Syndrome (2007) p. 5 and p. 12
- Tim Field, Bully in Sight Success Unlimited (1996) p. 63-7 ISBN 978-0-9529121-0-1
- Paul Stillwell/Colin L Powell, The Golden Thirteen (2003) p. 98 and p. 86
- Debra Wesselmann, The Whole Parent (2003) p. 104
- Polly Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire (London 2000) p. 107 and p. 113
- Neville Symington, Narcissism (2003) p. 70
- P. Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 144
- Eric Berne, Games People Play (1966) p. 126-7
- Gil E Foster parents: set up to fail — Child abuse & neglect, Child Abuse and Neglect, 8(1), Pages 121–123 (1984)
- Loftus K Set Up to Fail: 100 Things Wrong with America's Schools (2006)
- Manzoni J Barsoux J Set-up-to-fail Syndrome: Overcoming the Undertow of Expectations (2007)
- Pluto T False Start: How The New Browns Were Set Up To Fail (2004)
- Urbaczewski A Moore JE Setting up to fail: the case of Midwest MBA — Success and pitfalls of information (1999)