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 in situations where they cannot possibly succeed. This may be because they have 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, termed a "negative spiral of expectations... the 'set-up-to-fail' syndrome".[1] Or they may have a pathological, unwarranted fear of failure or "failure neurosis", so that failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.[2]

Sometimes, though less frequently, another person puts an individual in a situation in which failure is almost certain. This latter scenario may be sometimes characterized as bullying.[3]

In any case, individuals usually become stressed when attempting to achieve the impossible, particularly if under pressure. In the case when a task has been maliciously assigned, once the task attempt has failed, the outcome can then be used as ammunition to discredit and blame the victim. A variation on this is that an otherwise achievable objective is covertly sabotaged and undermined to make it unachievable.[citation needed]

Examples of setting others up to fail[edit]

The prototype of the set-up-to-fail syndrome is the figure of Sisyphus, eternally doomed to roll the same rock up to the top of the hill. "But every time, as he was going to send it toppling over the crest, its sheer weight turned it back, and the misbegotten rock came bounding down again".[4]

Eric Berne has described how what he calls a latter-day "Sisyphus works very hard and gets right to the brink of success. At that point he gives up, and loses everything he has gained. Then he has to start over from the bottom."[5] Berne linked the pattern to his upbringing as an orphan encouraged to be a star athlete by his (covertly) destructive uncle Homer: "What Homer really wanted was for [him] to try to be an athletic hero and fail."[6]

Setting up to fail is, in particular, a well-established workplace bullying tactic.[7][8][9] One technique is to "overload a person with work...accompanied with little or no authority, and frequently by its removal or denial" - something which readily "falls into the category of being set up to fail".[10] Again, "the withholding of information is a tool of control" for the workplace bully: "the victim is set up to fail... through not having the requisite knowledge or information to hand".[11]

"Going through the motions" is another application of setting up to fail, for example a sham investigation in which the findings conveniently fail to find any evidence of wrongdoing by the authorities involved with setting up the investigation.

With the French Panama Canal Company, it has been suggested that "attempts to excavate a Suez-type canal without locks in the mountainous terrain of Panama... may have been set up to fail" from the inside, rather than the outside: certainly the founder "made a fortune at the expense of thousands of small French investors" at the project's failure.[12]

Minorities seeking acceptance into the mainstream are often concerned about being set up to fail: thus the first black US naval officers had been "concerned that they had been set up to fail... as a result of what [one] would call institutional racism".[13]

Within parents, "unrealistic expectations can set up a child for certain failure", if for example the new baby is somehow expected to provide a magical solution to the parents' problems as a couple: "a sure-fire setup for failure in the first major job of the child's whole life. He naturally turns out to be a normal child, not a saviour".[14] In such a situation, "the child is co-opted into an arrangement whereby he or she is to provide the parents with a certain magic" - something which may leave the child in later life "acting out impulses of rage, hostility, and self-destruction...the pathological residue of a Divine Child complex".[15]

In a similar way, "a child is also set up to fail when a parent perceives that her child will somehow make her whole or make her a more worthwhile person... fantasizes about the perfect child"[16] - an impossible demand which may boomerang in those who subsequently "arrange their lives so that they suffer one reverse after another in miserable 'neuroses of destiny'"[17] Sacrificed to "the mother's hidden desire for power... is the development of the child's autonomy — that source of action and self-knowledge that permits us to become self-determining adults".[18]

Setting oneself up to fail[edit]

The motives of such self-defeating may be a fear of failure, such that it becomes a phobia. Adam Phillips has highlighted the way that "anyone who is failing at one thing is always succeeding at another... If I fail my exams I successfully maintain myself as someone who is not ready for the next stage".[19]

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. ^ Tim Field, Bully in Sight Success Unlimited (1996) p. 43 ISBN 978-0-9529121-0-1
  4. ^ E. V. Rieu trans., The Odyssey (Penguin 1959) p. 187
  5. ^ Eric Berne, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (Corgi 1974) p. 217
  6. ^ Berne, p. 216
  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. ^ Field, p. 63
  11. ^ Field, p. 67
  12. ^ Clyde Thogmartin, The National Daily Press of France (1998) p. 110
  13. ^ Paul Stillwell/Colin L Powell, The Golden Thirteen (2003) p. 98 and p. 86
  14. ^ Debra Wesselmann, The Whole Parent (2003) p. 104
  15. ^ Polly Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire (London 2000) p. 107 and p. 113
  16. ^ Wesselmann, p. 104
  17. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 501
  18. ^ Young-Eisendrath, p. 120 and p. 108
  19. ^ Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (London 1994) p. 49

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]