Engagement Killers:Bait and Switch Management Practices


One of the most traumatic experiences of my life occurred around the time I was turning thirteen years old. That was a birthday more meaningful than many because I knew from conversations with my parents that they were going to increase my allowance. I was the oldest child and I’d be moving from the $.50/week my other siblings received to $.75/week. In my world, where baseball or football cards were $.05/pack w/ gum these were going to be high times!

Not wanting to get my hopes too far out of line with my understanding from past conversations I decided to check bets with my Mom before the big day. To my surprise and disappointment I was informed that yes, I would be getting the increase as previously discussed but with the stipulation that from the day of my birthday onward I needed to run each of my purchases by my mother in advance so she could insure I was making good choices. Yikes! This is now remembered as my "Bait and Switch" birthday. Up to that point, I had spent my weekly $.50 however I chose, mostly on the sports cards that I so dearly prized at the time. What would the future hold? Somehow this didn’t feel at all like I had expected it would.

To say the least, I was crushed! What if she didn’t agree with my spending choices? Moms have different priorities than young boys; they are often looking for opportunities to teach them lessons about the value of money, saving for a rainy day, that kind of thing. Drat! My excitement was dashed in one short conversation. What was the point of having the extra money if I couldn’t decide how to spend it?

Fast forward to right now,… the event just described never took place! For the record, I never had a $.75/wk allowance, I topped out at $.50/wk. Sorry for the ruse; I was trying to imagine myself in the situation many managers have reported finding themselves in. A scene similar to the conversation I fabricated with my mother would come after several rounds of the annual budgeting process. Managers then receive their final numbers along with the admonition from the granting authority that they must submit a request for approval of any expenditure of either a certain type or size. Almost anything of consequence is covered by this caveat.

Yaaaaaagh! Hey, Senior Budgeting Authority, what’s the point of granting a budget if you aren’t going to grant full spending discretion along with it? Oh, yes, and by the way, how exactly is it that you hold someone to account or tie their compensation to a number you have final control over?

I am not going out of my way here to be a smarty pants and you are welcome to question the accuracy of the analogy I have created; but not much. Let it burn! I actually think practices like this are frequently and thoughtlessly held in place by habit. How are they tolerated? It is a tough economy where new opportunities are hard to come by.  Or maybe, the managers involved just don’t care enough to push back.

Practices like this one are often fiercely defended by their practitioners if questioned (I doubt that you need me to provide examples, I am sure you unfortunately have plenty of your own).

“Back in the day” , when command and control was the only management approach maybe no one thought a lot about practices such as this, it was just the way it was. These days when every organization is counting on discretionary effort, especially from managers we need to step back and ask, “What exactly is it that we are hoping to accomplish with this constraint on our managers? Maybe we could gain more by encouraging initiative, innovation and creativity?"

Here’s a thought, Senior Budgeting Authority, If you aren’t willing to question your restrictive practices, how about considering that the scores on your engagement surveys are really more of a measure of apathy in a tough job market?  

  • Think about what you do as a manager that may be a) communicating to people that they are not trusted or b) constraining them from taking full accountability for what you have told them is expected?    

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