In the famous fairy tale Hansel and Gretel written by the Brothers Grimm, as Hansel and Gretel follow their parents into the woods, Hansel leaves a trail of bread crumbs behind, hoping to follow the trail back to their home. It is a different matter that the tactic did not work, as birds eat up the crumbs and the kids are lost in the woods, at the mercy of the powers that be.
So breadcrumbing is about fairy tales?
Well – not just that. The Macmillan Dictionary defines breadcrumbing as “in online dating, sending messages which suggest that you're still interested in someone, when in fact you're very unlikely to want to meet or have a relationship with them”.
This is commonly seen in relationships. You may know someone in a relationship that is headed nowhere, and your friend is continually complaining about his or her partner. When advised to let go of the relationship as the “significant other” is simply stringing them along, the said friend ignores – often angrily – the advice; yet, months later, they would have indeed bitterly broken off from that relationship, and carried along with baggage that leaves them cynical about relationships in general.
Umm… breadcrumbing is about relationships, then.
Again – not just that. Breadcrumbing is not just limited to personal relationships but is fast becoming a common workplace phenomenon. In the context of your place of employment, breadcrumbing refers to giving employees a taste, a sense, a promise of what lies in store for them in the future. This includes praising them, and hinting about possible promotions, raises, or projects so that employees stay in line without actually getting anything. The idea is to keep them tempted to put in their best and keep them wanting more.
Does it really happen in the workplace?
It sure does, and in more than one form, too. Take a look at the examples below:
That sounds unfair! Why does it happen?
It is not fair as such; it has its reasons, though. These could include:
So maybe I or someone I know is being breadcrumbed but does not know it! Any tell-tale signs that could help?
Of course, senior management will not tell you that you are being breadcrumbed, so you need to watch your own back and keep a lookout. Keep the following in mind:
It sounds bad – surely there is nothing good about it.
There are a few positives to breadcrumbing, though – it is not all bad. If the trail of crumbs does lead to tangible positives within reasonable time frames, it is still acceptable. Good communication with your team leaders or your senior management is essential for them to understand your motivation and their need to follow through on their assurances.
According to B Lynn Ware, an industrial/organizational psychologist, “Breadcrumbing is really a modern term for what we used to call intermittent reinforcement, which is one of the strongest ways to develop someone's behavior.” In fact, good managers use behavioral reinforcement to develop their team members through rewards and recognition.
That does not make it good!
Of course, it does not! There are serious negatives to the practice of breadcrumbing, which include those given below:
True that! What should be done about it?
The quicker employers realize that mere breadcrumbing with no rewards does not work and will not work, the sooner the problem can be solved. Some of the steps for employers to take are suggested below:
Employees can also take some action – rather, they must! As an employee, you would do well to keep a note of the following:
Remember, then, that not all breadcrumbs are bad – they could be good if they are leading somewhere. If not, then maybe it is time to seek a new path!