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Fostering Success in Online Community Management: Avoiding the Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome


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Online community management is a delicate balance of trust, performance, and communication. Dynamics between administrators and community members can sometimes lead to a phenomenon known as the "set-up-to-fail syndrome." This syndrome, often associated with traditional workplaces, can have parallels in online communities. Let's explore how community leaders can navigate these challenges to foster success.

Understanding the Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome

The set-up-to-fail syndrome begins subtly, with administrators having reservations about certain community members' contributions. These concerns may lead to actions that unintentionally hinder members' engagement. For instance, increased moderation, approval requirements, or additional restrictions can send a message of distrust and erode members' confidence.

The Dynamics of In-Groups and Out-Groups

Much like in traditional workplaces, online communities may unintentionally categorize their members into in-groups and out-groups. In-group members receive trust and recognition, while out-group members often face tighter controls. This categorization can affect motivation and lead to premature judgments about a member's potential.

Recognizing Behavioral Patterns

Community leaders should be aware of the behavioral patterns associated with the set-up-to-fail syndrome. When members perceive criticism or a lack of confidence, they may become disengaged, defensive, or emotionally disconnected. This not only affects their performance but also consumes administrators' energy and time.

Consequences for Online Communities

The set-up-to-fail syndrome can have significant consequences for online communities. Members who feel undervalued or alienated may seek support from sympathetic peers, disrupting team cohesion. It can also lead to overburdening top performers and potential burnout.

Breaking Free from the Syndrome

To overcome the set-up-to-fail syndrome, community leaders must create a context for open and honest discussions. Using affirming language and acknowledging one's behavior can pave the way for constructive dialogue. Both parties should identify areas of improvement and mutual understanding.

Open Communication is Key

In online communities, open communication is essential to address the root problems. Rather than relying solely on supervision, administrators should encourage members to share feedback and concerns. However, it's crucial to create a safe space for these conversations to take place.

Intervention and Its Outcomes

Intervening in the set-up-to-fail syndrome isn't always feasible, but when done effectively, it can lead to positive outcomes. The best-case scenario involves coaching, training, improved relationships, and enhanced performance. Even in less ideal situations, intervention can still yield marginal performance improvements and more productive relationships.


Online community management comes with its unique challenges, including the set-up-to-fail syndrome. By fostering open communication, addressing concerns, and avoiding categorization into in-groups and out-groups, community leaders can create an inclusive and thriving digital space for all members.

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