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Are subordinates blameless victims?

We mostly read about mistakes LEADERS make. The MIT Sloan Management Review (Summer 2009) article “Are Your Subordinates Setting You Up to Fail?” by Jean-Francois Mansoni and Jean-Lous Barsoux shows the SUBORDINATE side of the equation.

Here are some subordinate behaviors that can damage team success:
  • Passivity, defensiveness, or agressiveness
  • Discounting the boss’s critical feedback on the grounds that it is driven by the boss’s disposition rather than their own performance flaws
  • A focus on the boss’s shortcomings rather than strengths
  • Miscontruction of the actions of the boss
  • Over-intentionalizing, that is, projecting hidden intent where there is none
  • Extreme vigilance, that is, watching their boss “interact with their colleagues. They notice who the boss spends time with, what the boss says or does not say. This extreme vigilance … can encourage subordinates to make too much of casual comments, rushed feedback or perceived slights.”
Such subordinate behaviors activate a negative label about the boss or team. Then the situation tends to get worse. These subordinates build a group around them. They turn first to those who may be least inclined to defend the boss. Over time, even subordinates who try to maintain a more balanced view may find themselves caught up in the general negative mood.

Such behaviors not only damage the team, but sometimes lead these individuals to sabotage their own careers and chances of success.

First posted in WordPress on July 11, 2009


  1. I would not place blame on the subordinates for the following reasons:

    a) Subordinates not being good and not performing well is the most frequently used managerial excuse. It is often just that, an excuse for the inability to manage.

    b) A manager selects, fires and rewards and promotes his subordinates based on performance. If he does not get to do that, he should talk to his boss. If he does not want to do that, he should not be a manager.

    c) Most of the subordinate cribbing and negative attitudes are often directly attributable to one or more leadership deficiencies in the manager, such as favouritism, avoidance of giving feedback, lack of recognition of successese, inability to communicate and so on...if a leader is incapable of leading, his team goes astray.

  2. The MIT article does not blame subordinates ... it just tries to bring balance to the boss-employee equation from a REALWORLD perspective.

    In a sense, you are completely correct in what you say -- that's exactly how things are supposed to be (select/reward/fire) ... just that the realworld is not so perfect to support it.

    If you have led teams, please feel free to share some experiences. Did you always SELECT the team members for your group? Did your company always support your REWARD system for your team? Can you share how you dealt with "erring" Vs "really bad" subordinates? Did you always have the freedom to FIRE the "really bad"?

    I think that's where the MIT article jumps in ... showing how SOME subordinates SOMETIMES think/behave "inappropriately" AND the need for managers to be aware of it so they can -- yes! -- manage it.

  3. Now I see your point...the manager has to first become aware that his subordinates are causing all this damage so that he does not get up one fine morning and discover his world has crumbled...I agree this should be essential learning for managers, so they recognize the symptoms...

    As for myself, I would say 80% of the time, I have had the ability to pick the team and make necessary changes. I have seen odd cases of truant behaviour and so on, but I could mostly contain them, in a few months, if not immediately.

    Having said that, the real challenge was in keeping these things from spreading to a larger, then it is your positive influence on the team versus someone else's negative influence.

  4. Your soundbite "it is your positive influence on the team versus someone else's negative influence" is very powerful and meaningful. You might want to consider writing an article around it.

  5. will try...thanks for your encouragement!

  6. I don't know if this question is out of the blue...but I am keen to ask you this question....
    what do you do when your boss is stupid? and you do not like his thoughts and he has a vision which is crap..and your boss is old and is impressed with just one young MBA Grad and just leans on him for decisions and treats others as kids??
    Can you let me know your thoughts?


  7. Shri, if a boss really is as bad as you describe, finding another (hopefully, better) boss appears to be the only option.

    On the other hand ... If you are not (honestly) sure about the way you characterize the boss, you may want to run through the article or at least the checklist I provided to check if reality is different from perception.


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