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What may be a less morbid equivalent of the idiom "Giving someone enough rope to hang himself"?

In other words, an idiom for empowering someone with a capability that they might, through ignorance, misuse to self-detrimental effect.

The motivation for an alternative is the professional setting, where it's not appropriate to allude to suicide!

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    If you're worried about alluding to suicide in your professional environment, you might also want to avoid taking this action in the first place. It's generally poor team play to enable a teammate in this way. Dec 4, 2018 at 19:29
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    Not regarded as morbid. Just a figure of speech. Cherish the English language for its colour, rather than strangling it with bland weasel words.
    – David
    Dec 4, 2018 at 19:55
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    @David On what basis can you say it's not regarded as morbid? Using death by hanging as a metaphor for an unrelated situation very much suits the definition of the term. To want to avoid allusions to death by hanging in a formal business setting does not seem at all in opposition to "cherishing the English language's colour", since there are plenty of other colourful expressions which are not appropriate to all audiences. Dec 4, 2018 at 20:54
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    @RobbieGoodwin Its allusion to death by hanging (and to suicide depending on how you interpret it) is direct and specific, in contrast to some usages of death/injury imagery in idioms. Contrast against Omar's suggestion of "dig their own grave", which alludes to death in a more abstract sense, or "shoot yourself in the foot" which is a specific description of self-harm but softened by the absurdity of it. "Giving them a gun with which they can shoot themselves in the foot" would be an example of a made-up expression with the same meaning. Dec 4, 2018 at 20:58
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    Thanks Paul and broadly, what makes anything "morbid" is not the subject, but why one even looks at it, let alone concentrates on it. We here have no tiny fraction of the time it would take to explain why, yet “Giving someone enough rope to hang himself” is nothing like "using death by hanging as a metaphor for an unrelated situation…" To me, that you see this as morbid, or go on to associate "hanging" with "suicide" says more about your mind-set than any part of the language. Dec 4, 2018 at 21:07

10 Answers 10

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More of a phrase than an idiom, but...

set someone up to fail / set someone up for failure

From Wikipedia (I know, I know... but it's the best source I could find):

Setting up to fail is a well-established workplace bullying tactic.[6][7][8] One technique is to overload with work, while denying the victim the authority to handle it and over-interfering;[9] another is the withholding of the information necessary to succeed.[10]

If a person puts another individual (usually a subordinate) in a stressful situation in which failure is almost certain, this may be an aspect of bullying wherein the outcome can then be used to discredit and blame the victim.[11] Sometimes, this may involve the bully covertly sabotaging and undermining an objective that may have otherwise been achievable. This type of bullying may be the result of the projection of the bully's own feelings of inadequacy onto the victim.[12]

There can be cases where an employee is set up to fail because the stated goals of the task are considered harmful to the organization; an internal investigation is one example. Institutions may protect themselves by "going through the motions" of a sham investigation in which the findings conveniently fail to find any evidence of wrongdoing by the authorities involved with setting up the investigation.

From the Harvard Business Review: comic illustrating a boss setting someone up to fail

That was specifically about employees and bosses, but it's possible for parents/children, co-workers, teammates... any number of relationships. Even yourself!

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    I think this comes pretty close, though may not be quite the thing.
    – Kris
    Dec 5, 2018 at 6:34
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    I don't think this is too bad, but there is clearly someone downvoting answers to this question in a rather cavalier manner. The comic strip may have annoyed him.
    – David
    Dec 5, 2018 at 13:02
  • @David Yeah, I didn't realize the comic would be so ill-received. I thought it would be a nice change from the blocks of text we get so often.
    – miltonaut
    Dec 10, 2018 at 20:13
  • @David so are you saying, with regard to voting, that StackExchange bit off more than it could chew, or gave us enough rope to hang ourselves? ;)
    – kenny
    Feb 19, 2019 at 18:44
  • Giving someone enough rope probably means setting them up to fail, although there is the related but more positive idea of giving someone the space to make their own mistakes (and possibly learn from them). But the fact that the consequence is hanging suggests it's a fairly bad thing expected, not a learning opportunity.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 6, 2023 at 8:34
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This phrase is used for a range of things, so I don't think you'll find an exact equivalent for all the usages.

The one phrase that comes the closest, but is still fairly violent (though not exactly morbid, I guess) is: let him shoot himself in the foot. This captures the sense of "rather than fight about it and drag things on, just give him the autonomy he wants, he'll fail quickly, and we can move on."

But it's missing the sense of actively feeding them rope to hang themselves with. And if the rope metaphor is objectionable, this is not likely to be an improvement.

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Give somebody the freedom to make mistakes or give somebody the space to make mistakes.

These are often used in the context of management and education. It's a bit nicer than talking about hanging (or shooting oneself in the foot).

Amy Rees Anderson wrote in Forbes: "As a business leader, I found that one of the scariest things to do was to give your people the freedom to make mistakes." (Amy Rees Anderson, "Good Employees Make Mistakes. Great Leaders Allow Them To.", Forbes, April 17, 2013)

Graeme Richardson wrote something similar in The Guardian: "But universities, it seems to me, are a good place for making mistakes; and the freedom which is a university's soul includes the freedom to make mistakes." (Graeme Richardson, "A university's soul is the freedom to make mistakes", The Guardian, Oct 22, 2010)

Jack Kornfield claims Gandhi said "Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes." I don't know if Gandhi said this, but it's still a good maxim. (Jack Kornfield, "Freedom to make mistakes", Jack Kornfield blog)

These are neutral expressions, a lot more positive than "give someone the rope to hang themselves", which recognise that sometimes making mistakes are the best way to learn. If you say "give someone the rope to hang themselves" or similar expressions about "shooting themselves in the foot" you appear to expect the person to do something stupid, or even to gloat about it.

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I read through the other answers here and I think there are two distinct senses of this idiom. In one sense, freedom to fail is given, much like the creator has empowered man with legs that we might embark on a glorious mountain climb but fall off the cliff at the summit. In another sense, one has intentionally set someone on a course to failure knowing with their frail human nature that they cannot help but fail, such as a drug dealer giving away the first crystal meth sample for free.

I was raised by a mother native to the western United States, and a father native to the southern United States. I don't recall my mother ever using this phrase, but my father used it often. As an electrical and RF engineer, he meant it in the more positive sense because he was usually EMPOWERING someone. Giving someone a mobile phone, for example, is giving them a tremendous amount of power to do such self-detrimental things as call up the White House from just outside the gate and threatening the life of the President. But the idiom is meant to convey that though the person is being given tremendous power, which comes with tremendous responsibility, the power being given is a net positive thing for that person because of all the amazingly positive things they can do with the power. As a software engineer, I also use this phrase to indicate an empowerment.

I don't like that the accepted answer has suggested alternatives which clearly carry the more negative sense of this idiom. I can appreciate that people across the English speaking world might have different senses of this idiom, but I don't accept that there is only that one negative sense that captures some kind of overwhelming majority of the worldwide use of this idiom.

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Trust someone with the keys to the car.

Used metaphorically (particularly, it seems, in various football circles) in examples such as

  • Comfortable, no. Wanya Morris showed enough that I would trust him with the keys to the car. [Football's Future]

  • It’s a difficult style to play (just ask Melia how long it took an MLS to trust him with the keys to the car) but if a professional outfit can help him get traction, we could see quite the comeback story for a goalkeeper that was long counted out [Everybody Soccer]

Even endorsed as an extended metaphor:

  • ... coach Andy Reid: “He’s book-smart; we knew that. But he has football smarts. You can trust him with the keys to the car, and I’m not talking about a beat-up car — I’m talking about a Rolls-Royce.” [ESPN]
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Collapse under their own weight is worth considering.

"Bleed out" is obviously morbid, but maybe that sparks an idea for you.

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It's not really a set phrase, but a pretty good swap in would be: give someone shoelaces long enough to trip themselves with.

Not so morbid, not particularly violent. And most people will recognise it as a variation of the original and take it to have largely the same meaning. It does miss the nuance that most people are not asking for longer shoelaces, but with the original phrase I think the assumption is that they are happy to have more rope.

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Came here looking for an answer to this exact question and found the top-voted response to be missing a critical component of the original, which is the increase in freedom and flexibility.

So possibly:

  • Phenomenal cosmic powers... no one to protect you from bad choices
  • You can drag your little red wagon as far up the hill as you like, just remember it has no brakes
  • Your ski pass will let you go on everything from bunny slopes to double black diamond and we are trusting you to know your limits
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Give someone “room to run with it.”

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As I have already implied in my comment, I see nothing morbid about “giving someone enoucgh rope to hang themselves”, and I do not think there is an exact equivalent.

However a form of anodyne words to convey the requirements of the poster using an idiomatic expression, might be

To encourage someone to bite off more than he can chew

This differs from a straight idiom-for-idiom equivalence, in that my addition of “to encourage” is needed to cover the act of “giving”, satisfying the poster’s “empowering” (his words, not mine). His reference to “a capacity”, expressed by “enough rope” in the original idiom, implies surplus capacity — a limited amount of rope would be enough, but more is given to allow “misuse to self-detrimental effect” (in the words of the poster). I would suggest that “more than he can chew” embodies the same idea of “surplus capacity” (“capability” in the words of the poster) with the “self-detrimental effect” being merely implied — indigestion? choking? embarassment at having to spit the meat out? — but clearly there.

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  • This fails to answer the question. "He bit off more than he could chew" implies that the hapless person didn't just have the ability to do something detrimental, he actually did it. We don't say things like "we had him bite...". Moreover, "bit off more than he could chew" implies that his action landed him with responsibility to do more than he could do. The OP might or might not want that implication.
    – Rosie F
    Dec 5, 2018 at 6:48
  • @RosieF — I think your comment ignores the context of the request. I have modified my answer to clarify why I think it might serve the poster's needs. Please read it and consider withdrawing your downvote.
    – David
    Dec 5, 2018 at 8:49
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    You know, if you disagree with the premise of an OP it's perfectly acceptable to say so in an answer but to then add the following gratuitous comment (unless the act of chewing is considered vulgar with its association with gum). is just being unnecessarily sarcastic and catty. Now, if it had been witty that would be a separate matter.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 5, 2018 at 11:30
  • @Mari-LouA — Sigh. Deleted. (But surely the English usage of the word "catty" is only in relation to women.)
    – David
    Dec 5, 2018 at 13:00

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