If you've ever felt that your boss sets you up to fail, research suggests you may not be paranoid - but right.

Jean-Francois Manzoni, an assistant professor at a leading European business school, INSEAD in Fountainebleau, France, says his studies show that when an employee doesn't excel on the job, the manager does not hold himself responsible, even when it can be linked to the boss's own behavior.

"They say it is the employee - the person cannot work on their own, are not responsible, or are not creative," Manzoni says in an article co-authored with Jean-Louis Barsoux in the Harvard Business Review (Reprint 98209). "But it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

What that means is that once a boss has decided a worker cannot succeed, then it becomes very difficult - if not downright impossible - to break that opinion.

Specifically, the manager makes it more difficult for the employee's suggestions to see the light of day, or argues with every idea the employee makes, so that it is less likely others will pick up on the idea.

"And when it becomes really bad, you become transparent," says Manzoni. "It may become so difficult that the subordinate has to leave in order to achieve anything."

The fallout is not only damaging to individual careers, but in the new work dynamic calling on team efforts, group innovations, and shared information, such actions can damage other workers and, ultimately, the company.

"The beauty of the research is that we found the bosses won't deny that they behaved this way. They say that they are generally aware that they behaved in more controlling ways with the lower group of performers," Manzoni says. "The bosses do what they want and they get what they expect."

As a result, even though an employee may be capable of great things, once targeted as a low performer they may begin to act that way. The person begins to doubt his or her own judgment, withdrawing and offering fewer ideas for consideration.

Still others may swing the other way and begin taking on huge workloads in order to prove their worth - but quality suffers, and that only emphasizes the negative label.

In research with more than 800 business executives, Manzoni found that there is an "intervention" for bosses who are willing to admit to such destructive behavior and want to fix it. Manzoni emphasizes it must come from the top - an employee has little recourse once such action starts.

They advise an intervention should:
  1. Set a peaceful meeting site.
    A time and place should be agreeable to the boss and the employee. It should be emphasized this is not a chance to give "feedback" to the employee (that often bodes ill for the worker), but rather a chance to address the relationship in an open and honest way.

    The boss can admit there is tension - and that he may be responsible for problems in the employee's performance. The worker should be free to discuss the manager's behavior.

  2. Address the weaknesses.
    No one sets out to fail, but sometimes employees are not as capable in some areas as in others. The boss and the worker need to decide the specific areas of weakness, and the manager needs to provide evidence that these flaws exist.

    This is a chance for the employee to compare his performance with others, pointing out strengths and capabilities.

  3. Find out why.
    Once the performance problems have been identified, then it's time to find out why this weakness exists. Has the boss been contributing to the problem with his attitude? What assumptions by the employee and the manager have contributed to the tensions over these problems?

  4. Agree on objectives.
    Once the dirty laundry has been aired, then it's time to move forward. The manager and employee should agree on performance objectives, and how their relationship can improve.

    While new objectives may require some monitoring by the boss, an employee should be free of intense scrutiny as the performance improves.

  5. Improve communication.
    The employee and boss should agree to address any problems in the future right away, opening the door to more honest communication.
"The more I have looked at this issue systematically, the more I saw it really was a phenomenon," Manzoni says. "But it is possible to interrupt the dynamic. I'd recommend that employees who recognize it to give their bosses a copy of (our research) and see if they recognize themselves."

SOURCE: Adapted from Anita Bruzzese, Take This Job and Thrive (Manassas Park, VA, 2000), pp. 93-95. All rights reserved.