SET UP TO FAIL

Making personnel moves is a routine part of most manager’s jobs.  It is also one of the most critical elements of a manager’s responsibilities, whether looked at from the organization’s or the individual assignee’s perspective.  From the organization’s vantage point, getting the right people in the right jobs translates into quality output and top performance.  From the individual’s perspective, it is about job satisfaction, motivation, morale, self-confidence, a sense of making a difference, and self-fulfillment.

In a book I have mentioned elsewhere in these articles, “First, Break All The Rules” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, the authors make a compelling case that the best managers place enormous emphasis on talent, individual strengths, and on finding the right fit, in making every personnel assignment.  According to the authors, the best manager’s are consistently guided by a simple mantra:

“People don’t change that much.  Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out.  Try to draw out what was left in.  That’s hard enough”. (see P. 67)

But what happens when, for whatever reason, a manager manages to place a square peg in a round hole?  This is what I call a SET UP TO FAIL and as I have seen far too often, it can have serious consequences all around.

Fans of mystery and detective stories fully understand the phenomena called A SET UP.  The victim initially is unaware that their situation will likely result in an outcome detrimental to their well-being in some way.  Thus the ultimate discovery by the victim that they had little control over — or ability to alter — their fate, is painful, frustrating, and demoralizing.  The victim generally ends up feeling manipulated, disrespected, and angry.  Most managers understand that this is no way to treat anybody entrusted to their management skill but it can happen by mistake and despite the best intentions.

What I wrote in an earlier article — “The Fine Art of Hiring” — about fully understanding the nature of the post you are about to fill before you fill it, holds equally true in making any internal assignment decision.  Everything begins with a clear comprehension of the purpose, goals, and relevance to your organization’s business or mission of the position itself, and the skills, talents, and strengths the occupant will need to possess to succeed.  Match these two criteria carefully, provide a clear set of expectations, add in the right amount of coaching and mentoring, and let the person you assign figure out the specific steps to desired outcomes, and successful performance is usually the result.

Of course even the best managers do not always get it right.  And many managers get it wrong far too often for a variety of reasons: they pick a friend, favorite colleague, or decide to fill some quota, without regard for strengths or skills; they display gender or racial blindness in compiling the assignment pool thereby potentially overlooking some better choices; or they simply do not undertake the necessary homework needed to fully understand — as the above manager mantra requires — what the specific individuals they are considering can and can’t do. Moreover, the consequences of a bad assignment decision — the set up for failure — only magnifies when a manager or management insists that the problem lies with the assignee alone, not likewise with the bad-match decision itself.

When we humans fail at something — for whatever reason — many of us place a great deal of the blame on ourselves.  But that does not exonerate managers from blame for their contribution to a poor assignment call.  Managers are the ones ultimately responsible to ensure that people with the right talent, strengths and skills are matched with the jobs at hand.  Thus, no matter how much someone may want and lobby for a particular assignment — or may personally feel they have all the strengths and skills required — the best managers will say NO and WHY when their best judgment tells them to do so.

Bad assignment decisions always have a high potential for failure; in essence they are a set up to fail in some way.  That is why the best managers work hard to make very few of these decisions and when they do, they are quick to acknowledge the mistake and take corrective action in a way that both serves their organization and hopefully preserves the dignity and self-confidence of the victim of that mistake.

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