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What Can I Do If My Boss Is Setting Me Up for Failure?

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According to the "Harvard Business Review," suspicions that your boss is setting you up to fail may be accurate. In fact, a workplace dynamic that sets up certain employees to fail is alive and well in many businesses. The magazine says a set-up-to-fail syndrome can result from a minor transgression, such as missing a deadline, or it can be a byproduct of personal incompatibility. Regardless of the reason, it typically manifests as increased supervision in which your boss watches, questions and double-checks everything you do. Instead of suffering silently, take action to reverse the situation.

What Not to Do

If you’re being set up to fail, knowing what not to do can be as important as knowing what to do. For example, the "Harvard Business Review" does not recommend taking extreme measures to resolve the situation on your own. Although setting overly ambitious goals, such as taking on multiple projects at once or setting unrealistic deadlines, might seem like a good way to impress your boss, you might set goals so high you are bound to fail. This can make a bad situation worse.

Clarify Instructions

Sabotage often comes in the form of unclear or conflicting instructions. Push back against this by asking questions and getting instructions in writing. Paraphrasing, or repeating back what you hear for clarification, is a good starting point. In an article on the Career Connection website, Rozanne R. Worrell, a workplace consultant, also recommends covering yourself by confirming instructions via email. But remain respectful and professional when using this approach. Start sentences with words such as “I just want to make sure I understand correctly” or “Do you mean” to keep emails short, objective and pointed.

Help Your Boss Succeed

Margie Warrell, a certified coach, author and speaker, recommends adopting a problem-solving perspective. While you may balk at the thought of supporting a bad boss, you will gain nothing by making him look bad, and you might make yourself look even worse. Instead, look for his weaknesses, such as disorganization or lateness, and make yourself an employee your boss can rely on to be more effective. For example, create an appointment calendar or offer to lead the next meeting. Always take the high road and never let a boss’s bad behavior affect your own actions.

Schedule Mediated Intervention

In some cases, mediated intervention may be necessary to stop your boss' sabotaging behaviors. If you can’t speak with your boss directly or that makes you uncomfortable, involve a neutral third party, such as a representative from the human resources department. Mediated conflict resolution consists of a series of meetings in which you and your boss first acknowledge that a problem exists. From there you work to discover and understand each other’s viewpoint and find a mutually satisfactory solution.


Based in Green Bay, Wisc., Jackie Lohrey has been writing professionally since 2009. In addition to writing web content and training manuals for small business clients and nonprofit organizations, including ERA Realtors and the Bay Area Humane Society, Lohrey also works as a finance data analyst for a global business outsourcing company.

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