Avoiding Employee Failure

The Downward Spiral of Employee Performance

performance As a manager or organizational leader, you must be constantly aware of the environment you create. The environment can prove to be one where people perform well or one where people feel unappreciated and destined for failure. In a March 1998 article in Harvard Business Review, The Set-Up to Fail Syndrome, Jean-Francois Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux discuss this exact situation.

Have you ever experienced a situation in an organization where, although you have been appointed to a responsible position, you don’t seem to be part of the in-crowd. Meetings are held without extending you an invitation. Your superior by-passes you, talking directly with your subordinates when requiring information or making decisions. You inclusion in social functions is often an afterthought. Well, you are experiencing the downward spiral described by Manzoni and Barsoux. It is important to understand, as a manager, that once this spiraling relationship starts, there is very little that the subordinate can do to reverse its direction. The downward spiral is explained in the following steps.


  1. At the beginning there is at least a neutral or positive relation. You have hired or promoted the employee to this new responsible position and at least hope he will do well. A caution here is being particularly careful if you, as the manager, held the position at one time yourself. Then you might expect the employee to perform the function exactly in the same manner as you did previously.
  2. There is then a triggering event. Maybe the employee made a mistake, missed a deadline, has a poor month or lost a client. The manager may then begin to distance himself from the employee either socially or personally. Confidence is lost and it is shown in a very subtle way. There is no positive coaching or using the event as a learning experience.
  3. The manager then moves into a period of increased supervision. The relationship becomes one of micro-management. Every detail must be discussed and the employee is given little latitude for decision-making.
  4. The employee suspects that there is a lack of confidence and feels that they are not part of the in-crowd. He or she may even attempt to win back favor. In doing so, there may be a tendency to over -reach, possibly setting off the likelihood of another failure.
  5. The attempt at over-achievement leads to more failures, mistakes and poor judgment. Theperformance manager now further limits the employee’s flexibility in decision making and withholds social contact. At this point the employee definitely begins to show a lack of confidence.
  6. The employee now feels under-appreciated. He begins to withdraw from involvement in the work situation. His performance of tasks becomes mechanical and defers any decisions to the manager.
  7. The manager becomes increasingly frustrated and has concluded that the employee is unable to perform his responsibilities.  At this point, he makes his feelings known in both word and deed.
  8. At this point the manager is in full control. He both avoids contact and interest in the employee. The employee will either leave the organization or be discharged.

Hiring or selecting the right person for a job can be a difficult and time consuming process. If you consider the loss of time during the selection process and as the newly appointed candidates comes up to speed, it also can be a financially draining. We have discussed above the downward spiraling process and one can easily conclude that it very difficult for the employee to reverse this direction. Most of the control rests with the manager, so let’s suggest some ideas to minimize the possibility of this occurring.

  • Never start with the assumption that someone in a new position will be able to figure it out on their own. Initially, lots of coaching and mentoring is required.  This is time well spent, in that it builds a positive professional and social relationship. That relationship is extremely important if they initially stumble and are in need of support.
  • Use mistakes or shortfalls as a learning experience. Discuss with the employee the reason for their decision or action and more importantly what they learned as a result. These conversations are important and can lead to one of two paths. The first is positive, because through the analysis the employee grows in understanding and productivity. The second is not productive; the responses given by the employee do not indicate that nothing was learned. There may be excuses or blaming the negative results on others. In this second path, the employee becomes the creator of the downward spiral which will lead to failure.
  • In the early stages it is important that the manager insist on setting achievable goals. This is no time for big hairy aggressive goals.  The employee may want to prove his worth, but allow that to happen over long-term, not over the first few weeks.

This article is not to blame the manager on an employee’s lack of performance, only to a potential situation where they are bound to fail. Managers need to be coaches not micro-managers. This will lead to increased employee and organizational productivity.