Set Up to Fail? Here’s What to Do

Have you ever gotten the feeling that your manager has it out for you? Like every project, he or she sends your way is a total dud? It’s almost like they don’t want you to succeed!

Most professionals can relate to this feeling. It’s called “set up to fail.” It happens when you fear that, no matter what you do or how hard you try, you’re always going to come up short. Left unchecked, it spawns a vicious cycle of self-doubt and disappointment.

Those who feel set up to fail might have a few hard truths to face.

Here are 4 suggestions to help manage the situation:

  1. Reframe Your Mindset

Here’s a fact: Few managers really want you to fail. Think about it—what do they have to gain? Unless your manager is some kind of monster who feeds on the failings of others, they stand to lose as much as you do. If a manager wants to push you out by forcing failure upon you, that’s a pretty roundabout way of dealing with a personal issue. Most managers don’t have time for those games.

Why not shift your mindset and look for another reason you’re feeling this way? Is it possible that you’re just being challenged? Could it be that your manager gives you the hardest, ugliest, most problematic projects because he or she has faith in your abilities? Is it possible that you’ve created an impossibly high standard for success and you’re actually setting yourself up to fail?

Try looking at the situation through a different, less personal, lens. Most managers want their people to succeed. They might not know exactly how to help make that happen, but it doesn’t mean they’re actively working against you.

  1. Explain What You Need

Let’s work on the assumption that your manager is NOT, in fact, a monster. If you’re facing a situation that is doomed to fail, speak up and tell your manager what resources you need to turn it around. Few things are so hopeless that there’s nothing to be done.

Unfortunately, your manager can’t read your mind. You have to make direct requests for whatever it is you need, explain why it’s necessary, and articulate the consequences if it’s not provided. 

  1. Reset Expectations

Don’t allow yourself to get set up to fail by accepting unrealistic expectations. All too often, people are afraid to push back and they end up agreeing to impossible things. Whether it’s an impractical deadline or a predicted result that’s straight out of fantasyland, it’s your responsibility to rein things in.

Offer an alternative expectation that is achievable and discusses why the adjustment needs to happen. If the original parameters stand, clearly communicate the other adjustments that will need to happen as a consequence. For example, maybe you will need an extra team member to meet that crazy deadline or a larger budget to achieve those fantastic results. Your job is to play an active role in the expectation-setting process. Do not simply accept that dog-of-a-project without at least attempting to clean it up a bit.

  1. Move On

It’s worthwhile noting that some environments make success practically impossible. After all, if you’re selling broken watches, you could be the best salesperson in the world but you’re still set up to fail. Whether the problem is caused by management, organizational incompetence or anything else, you have to ask yourself the hard question: “Is it me or is it them?”

If you’re convinced that the situation is irreparable, cut your losses and move on. Working in a situation where you can’t win is exhausting and depressing—and it does nothing to advance your career.


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