Trust and failure at work

One of your employees made a major mistake. It cost time, money, and stakeholder goodwill. You made a major effort and repaired the damage. So what happens next?

Many of us like to think that we would expect the person to learn from the mistake and continue to be a high-performing part of the team. But it can be hard to trust that person with similar projects in the future.

Several years ago I read a book called The Set Up to Fail Syndrome. The authors made the argument that an employee’s poor performance is often directly related to the behavior of his or her boss.

As they explained in this blog post, the pattern is the opposite of the Pygmalion effect.  Rather than helping an individual live up to great expectations, the set-up-to-fail syndrome encourages people to live down to low expectations.

  1. An employee makes some kind of mistake at work.
  2. The manager decides to take a more hands-on approach in managing performance by providing extra feedback, adding approval steps, and watching the employee more closely.
  3. Even though the manager is well meaning, the employee interprets this behavior as lack of confidence and trust. This leads to second-guessing themselves, withdrawing, and making fewer autonomous decisions.
  4. The boss perceives this behavior as further demonstration that the person is not a strong contributor, and the cycle continues.

This can become a self-reinforcing cycle in which even high-performing employees are no longer able to bring their best to the work. And it’s not unusual. What stuck with me about the book was this quote:

Up to 90% of all bosses treat some subordinates as though they were part of an in-group, while they consign others to an out-group.

Some years ago I worked with a colleague that had very different personality preferences than our manager. She made several choices that were different from what the manager would have done. The manager interpreted her work style as problematic and quit including her in planning meetings or seeking her feedback about programs she worked on. The employee began to feel like she couldn’t do anything right. She quit trying, thereby making the manager believe that he was correct to doubt  her abilities.

Eventually the employee transferred to a different department and immediately began to thrive. She was put in charge of increasingly complex tasks and earned at least one promotion. Her basic work performance and style didn’t change. What did change was her relationship with her manager and her resulting self-confidence.

Re-building trust after a mistake, or even a difference of opinion, can be hard. Not doing it means that some employees are given assignments and flexibility while others are not. The consequences can be costly for the employee, the work unit, and the organization.

What do you do after someone makes a mistake to ensure you are re-building trust instead of setting them up to fail?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Photo: Untitled photograph (Broken red vase) by Sarah Charlesworth

 

 

 

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