Breadcrumbing in the workplace
Breadcrumbing in the workplace can undermine effective communication, hinder professional development, and damage trust between employees
Phrases usually associated with dating are creeping into our workplace vocabulary. Ghosting in a recruitment process is now an everyday term. The latest one I’ve come across is “breadcrumbing” apparently first coined by the late TV Presenter Caroline Flack on the show Love Island.
What is breadcrumbing in the workplace?
Breadcrumbing in the workplace refers to a situation where a person or organisation provides intermittent or minimal feedback, guidance, or communication to an individual or team about their performance and future. The term “breadcrumbing” comes from the idea of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, which signifies small, occasional gestures that can mislead or give false hope; These platitudes without substantial commitment or direction make the person feels good for short time, but when this wears off they feel let down and confused as they wait for the next “crumb.” It’s a strategy to keep someone engaged.
In dating terms this is what we used to call stringing someone along or leading them on in a relationship just so they are always there.
Ilse, a Product Manager said “My manager would tell me from time to time I was doing a great job, but when I asked to be considered for a promotion he would give the job to someone else. He would say that I wasn’t “quite there yet,” but not explaining exactly what I could do to meet his expectations.”
What is involved in breadcrumbing?
Ambiguous feedback, unspecified performance or expectations are all part of breadcrumbing in the workplace It may involve erratic check-ins, limited availability, minimal communication about project progress, or vague instructions. Interspersed with this can be a ray of hope to keep someone on side and in their role but without ever coming up with the outcome they were looking for.
It can be carried out by your boss, but colleagues can also be guilty. We have all had coworkers who make use of our time, knowledge, and experience when they need something, only to be unavailable when we seek to have the favour returned.
This can also at a corporate level with evasive or misleading promises. We all know of organisations that make promises about their intentions to solve specific problems, or introduce certain benefits, but never do so fully, or at all. We see this in “washing” initiatives around DE&I or sustainability. The company makes a statement about promoting women, but still has a significant gender pay gap and few women in leadership roles.
A gender issue?
Is breadcrumbing in the workplace a gender issue? Research from Textio suggests that women get far less actionable feedback than their male colleagues. Women receive 22% more feedback about their personality than men, even more so taking into account intersectionality. Research from Amy Diehl PhD, Leanne M. Dzubinski, PhD, and Amber L. Stephenson, PhD, have identified 30 critiques that their male colleagues will never hear. This makes them never “quite right” or and leaves them facing the Goldilocks Dilemma.
So if breadcrumbing is related to erratic and ambiguous feedback, then if you join the dots it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that women are probably subjected to this more than men.
Downsides of breadcrumbing
Regardless of gender, breadcrumbing in the workplace can be detrimental to employee morale and productivity, leading to low employee engagement charaterised by a lack of clarity around goals and expectations.This can create a sense of false hope and frustration among employees, impacting job satisfaction and loyalty. Gallup in their study (2022) on workplace recognition, cites the lack of recognition as one of the key reasons employees feel disconnected from their work.
Overall, breadcrumbing in the workplace can undermine effective communication, and damage trust between employees, their managers and organisations. It is important for employers and leaders to foster open and transparent communication channels, provide regular feedback and support, and ensure clarity in expectations to prevent the negative effects of breadcrumbing.
So how can you tell when you’re being breadcrumbed, and what should you do about it?
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