Setting up to fail

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Setting up to fail is a figure of speech used to describe situations in which persons put themselves, or are put, into situations where they cannot possibly succeed. This may be 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,[1] or failure neurosis[2] – perhaps driven by a sense of guilt,[3] or by the compulsion to repeat self-destructive behaviour.[4]

Alternatively, another person may put an individual in a stressful situation in which failure is almost certain – an aspect of bullying wherein the outcome can then be used as ammunition to discredit and blame the victim.[5] A variation on this is that an otherwise achievable objective is covertly sabotaged and undermined to make it unachievable, perhaps as a result of the projection of the bully's own feelings of inadequacy onto the victim.[6]


Setting up to fail is a well-established workplace bullying tactic.[7][8][9] One technique is to overload with work, while denying the victim the authority to handle it and over-interfering;[10] another is the withholding of the information necessary to succeed.[11]

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.[12]


Parents may have excessive expectations of their children, setting them up for failure by hoping they may solve their parents' problems for them.[13] The result may be to create a self-destructive syndrome in the child – the so-called Divine Child complex.[14]


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.[15] Conversely, the helper, needing to keep clients in a state of dependency,[16] may be threatened by the prospect of success/closure, and undermine the therapy accordingly.[17]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In the film The Producers, theater show producers tried to set up a show to fail by intentionally including bad taste themes.
  • In the 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.
  • Reginald Perrin tried to set himself up to fail by starting a shop called Grot, which only sold useless goods.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ R. E. Boyatzis/A. McKee, Resonant Leadership (2005) p. 156
  2. ^ De Mijolla, Alain. "Failure neurosis". Enotes. Retrieved 8 April 2013. 
  3. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 506
  4. ^ S, Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11) p. 292-3
  5. ^ Tim Field, Bully in Sight Success Unlimited (1996) p. 43 ISBN 978-0-9529121-0-1
  6. ^ S. White, An Introduction to the Psychodynamics of Workplace Bullying (2013) p. 31-2
  7. ^ Peyton PR Dignity at Work: Eliminate Bullying and Create a Positive Working Environment (2003)
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ Randle J Workplace Bullying in the NHS (2006)
  10. ^ J-F Manzoni/J-L Barsoux, The Set-up-to-fail Syndrome (2007) p. 5 and p. 12
  11. ^ Tim Field, Bully in Sight Success Unlimited (1996) p. 63-7 ISBN 978-0-9529121-0-1
  12. ^ Paul Stillwell/Colin L Powell, The Golden Thirteen (2003) p. 98 and p. 86
  13. ^ Debra Wesselmann, The Whole Parent (2003) p. 104
  14. ^ Polly Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire (London 2000) p. 107 and p. 113
  15. ^ Neville Symington, Narcissism (2003) p. 70
  16. ^ P. Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 144
  17. ^ Eric Berne, Games People Play (1966) p. 126-7

Further reading[edit]

  • 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)

External links[edit]