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Why do we continually allow sandbagging to happen?

Sandbagging is a strategy of lowering the expectations of a company or an individual’s strengths and core competencies in order to produce relatively greater-than-anticipated results. Unlike Quiet Quitting, which focuses on stopping the completion of any tasks not explicitly stated in the job description, Sandbagging fundamentally drags down overall company performance. We’ve all seen it, experienced it, or maybe have done it ourselves. But why does Sandbagging happen, and why do we allow it to occur? There are a few behavioral reasons, beginning with what we let happen.

We let employees hide behind technology. We let people hide behind their incompetence. We let bosses ignore their direct reports. We let managers hide one of the biggest parts of their job — engaging employees — under HR. We let this happen because often, people don’t want to deal with confrontation and uncomfortable discussions. However, even worse, we do this because we don’t know it’s happening.

Executives fundamentally operate at 50,000 feet. They need to stay focused on big-picture issues, while middle managers deal with the day-to-day, ground-level execution of strategies. However, middle managers are often burdened with three things:

1. A lack of experience, motivation, talent, and training to help their employees improve. Managers often were promoted because they were good at their job, but this doesn’t mean they are good at helping other people do their job. In addition, Managers placed in roles based on their managerial experience often don’t know enough about the nuts and bolts of the job their teams are implementing to provide effective insight or guidance.

2. Their own “job”. Many Managers today are working managers, with duties and responsibilities to deliver outside of working with their staff to advance the organization’s efforts. If you have your own job that your performance is judged on, why spend time with the rest of the team? I’ve written more on this here.

3. Too much “stuff” and not enough “time”. Managers in lean operations frequently are under-resourced but have the same pressure of timely delivery as other departments which are fully resourced. However, because of items #1 and #2, these Managers can’t identify ways to create more “time” and eliminate unnecessary “stuff”. For example, I had a direct report whose job was to maintain 3,000+ documents. Almost nothing was ever fully up to date and always in a state of flux. Until I examined the issue in-depth, were we able to change the workflow and automate aspects of the process to free up 85% of her time? If managers don’t have time for problem-solving, nothing will change.

So, what happens? Employees who aren’t coached by an effective and engaged manager, who understands their job and can provide applicable resources, solutions, and opportunities for failure and learning, start retreating to safe zones. They start to learn the game, and how to manipulate it to protect their job and comfort level.

If the manager allows months of email chains without taking accelerated action, then that’s the way to avoid following through on something that is difficult or uncomfortable. Or holding back on starting a new initiative until it’s been reiterated six times because they’ve learned anything less than that the initiative is likely to be scrapped before it starts. Or approaching a problem or challenge with the least effort solution because the manager doesn’t understand the technology and won’t ask tough questions. All the while, perceived productivity remains high, and the managers are oblivious to all of the sandbagging happening.

If managers spend most of their managerial time either (a) in meetings or on calls or (b) doing the exact same stuff they did before they were a manager, that’s not an effective use of that resource. Then the burden falls on executives to push harder, escalate things quicker and set clear priorities. But that means, only those things get done. The operational sandbagging will continue despite this, and as more and more initiatives get added to the pile, the problem just gets worse. We can do better.

From the hundreds of employee surveys and interviews we’ve conducted, there are many reasons “why our workplace sucks”, but you don’t get too far down the list before you find, “We let managers hide behind basically every conceivable thing as opposed to asking them to do the primary responsibilities of their job.” Allowing employees to constantly hide and run from everything, including real conversations that need to be had, doesn’t help anything about the culture and productivity of the organization.

This requires executives to set the tone on behaviors they’d like to see in the organization, by coaching, guiding, and engaging their direct reports beyond the superficial status update. It requires allowing their leaders to fail and learn without repercussions. It requires eliminating the litany of random initiatives and activities piled on daily, and instead ensuring focus on what’s most important. It requires making their job one of 100% improving their employees and their performance. It requires having tough conversations and identifying new, innovative, unexplored ways to solve problems. Yes, this means you, executives.

Most of all, it requires being involved and highly engaged with people. If you have no honest and clear transparency to the inner workings of how your company runs and how the proverbial “sausage” gets made, you’ll never know how much Sandbagging is killing your productivity and profitability.

Andrea Olsen

Andrea Olsen

About the Author:

Andrea Belk Olson is a keynote speaker, author, differentiation strategist, behavioral scientist, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of The Customer Mission: Why it’s time to cut the $*&% and get back to the business of understanding customers, No Disruptions: The future for mid-market manufacturing, and her upcoming book, What To Ask, coming in June 2022.

She is a 4-time ADDY® award winner and host of the popular Customer Mission podcast. Her thoughts have been continually featured in news sources such as Chief Executive Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, Harvard Business Review, Rotman Magazine, World Economic Forum, and more. Andrea is a sought-after speaker at conferences and corporate events throughout the world. She is a visiting lecturer and startup coach at the University of Iowa, a TEDx presenter, and TEDx speaker coach. She is also an instructor at the University of Iowa Venture School.

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