Setting up to fail

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Setting up to fail is a phrase denoting a no-win situation designed in such a way that the person in the situation cannot succeed at the task which they have been assigned. It is considered a form of workplace bullying.[1] It is often cited as being perpetrated by management on employees, but there are also instances where the situation is reversed, or the employee self-directed the failure. It also is heavily referenced outside of business in sports, reality television, and other areas where it is felt the statement applies.

In the workplace

Setting up to fail is envisioned as a manner in which employees are blamed for failures that are in fact the fault of management - In Harvard Business Review, Manzoni and Barsoux, expanding on their earlier research,[2] state: "But sometimes—and we would venture to say often—an employee’s poor performance can be blamed largely on his boss." [3]

They also state that "set up to fail syndrome" "describes a dynamic in which employees perceived to be mediocre or weak performers live down to the low expectations their managers have for them."[3] The triggers can be performance-based, or "less specific."[3] They also explain the opposite pattern, where employees set up their bosses for failure, in an article written for MIT Sloan Management Review[4]

An opinion column on claimed that being set up for failure can happen because when one is "more qualified for a new job than the individuals with whom you're going to be working, your mere presence can threaten them, they can conspire to make your life miserable."[5]

In sports

The phrase is often used in sports, especially by outside sports reporters speculating on issues that coaches may have with respect to the team ownership. A caller to the Washington, DC CBS radio program, speaking about the upcoming Washington Redskins season, theorized that "despite GM Scot McCloughan having been empowered with final say over personnel and reports that he is ready to move on from [Robert] Griffin, Snyder [the owner of the team]'s history of remaining loyal to star players past their prime would suggest Griffin will remain on the roster." Host Eric Bickel responded, "Dan, from what I’ve heard, is not a huge fan of [Redskins head coach] Jay[Gruden]. Okay? He doesn’t really have a lot of faith in Jay. He wanted to fire Jay last year. This season plays out poorly, and he’s going to fire Jay … then he’s going to have another opportunity to get his guy back in there.” [6]This was cited as one of the factors in the tenure of Pete Carroll as head coach of the New England Patriots: "Because Carroll followed such an iconic figure in Parcells, those close to Carroll feel he never had a legitimate chance to succeed." It was also noted that "[l]ike Parcells, Carroll did not have control over assembling the 53-man roster."[7]

In television

It is also a tactic used in reality television, where situations are engineered to produce certain results.[8] My Kitchen Rules contestant Emily Cheung told the reporter that "she believes the producers set them up for failure in the instant restaurant round when they were told at 6 o’clock the night before they had to cook a Chinese dish they weren’t familiar with — smoked quail — and scored 2 out of 10."[8] The same article goes on to state that, "A former Apprentice contestant feels similarly manipulated, saying he believed producers had already decided who they wanted to win when he was eliminated."[8]

In other areas

There is a conspiracy theory based on a quote by 9/11 Commission member Lee H. Hamilton, interpreted to mean he was dissatisfied with the results of the 9/11 Commission Report because "the Commission was set up to fail." The actual context of the interview transcript indicates that Hamilton said his reasoning was that "Tom Kean and I were substitutes - Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell were the first choices; we got started late; we had a very short time frame - indeed, we had to get it extended; we did not have enough money - 3 million dollars to conduct an extensive investigation. We needed more, we got more, but it took us a while to get it."[9]


  1. Stambor, Zak."Bullying stems from fear, apathy." Originally published in Monitor on Psychology. American Psychological Association. July/August 2006, Vol 37, No. 7. p. 72
  2. J. F. Manzoni and Barsoux, J. L.Set up to Fail: How Bosses Create Their Own Poor Performers." 1996. Accessed September 5, 2015.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Jean-François Manzoni and Barsoux, Jean-Louis. "The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome". Harvard Business Review. Mar-Apr 1998. Accessed September 5, 2015.
  4. "Are Your Subordinates Setting You Up to Fail?". MIT Sloan Management Review. Summer 2009. Accessed September 5, 2015.
  5. Levinson, Meridith. "Job Survival Tips: What to Do When You're Set Up for Failure, Before You're Fired.", Oct. 2, 2008.
  6. Lingebach, Chris. "Junkies: Is Dan Snyder Setting Jay Gruden Up To Fail?" CBS DC. September 4, 2015. Accessed September 5, 2015
  7. Fox, Ashley. "New England: The Pete Carroll Years.". January 24, 2015. Accessed September 5, 2015.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Fenton, Andrew and Anna Brain. "Insiders say sleep deprivation and setting contestants up to fail are common tricks of the trade". The Daily Telegraph (Australia). September 5, 2015. Accessed September 5, 2015. Originally from
  9. Quotes - 9/11 Commission member said Commission was setup to fail.Skeptic Project. Accessed September 5, 2015.