Beware of Dangled Carrots

Picture a cart-pulling donkey chasing a carrot that’s dangled just out of reach. If the cart owner had to actually give the donkey a carrot at regular intervals, his margins would get compressed. But instead, the donkey willingly hauls his cart for the promise of a carrot. And try as it might, the donkey never reaches the carrot, which is always a few tantalizing steps away. Many people chuckle at the poor donkey without realizing that’s exactly who they are at work.

At one of my part time college jobs, I was sold the dream of being promoted to a supervisory position with a large client. I was informed that the client was planning to expand their business with our company and the promotion would come with a healthy raise. It never happened, but I put in a lot of extra effort as a result.

A dangled carrot is the promise of something that you desire and believe to be at least somewhat possible, yet never materializes. If you didn’t want the proffered carrot, you wouldn’t chase it. You would only chase a carrot that you believed to be attainable, no matter how unlikely. And if the promise materialized, it would be an actual carrot.

Dangled carrots are usually the result of unscrupulous bosses looking to take advantage of you. However, a well-meaning boss may inadvertently dangle a carrot in the process of chasing it himself. (In the case of my college job, it’s possible that my boss was getting played by his boss.)

Finally, the employee is occasionally complicit in their own dangled carrot scam because they fear change. Rather than admitting that they are being taken advantage of, the employee rationalizes that they are staying for the carrot. I was content to chase the dangled carrot because I had grown disillusioned with my college education.

Avoiding the dangled carrot trap requires you to distinguish between actual and dangled carrots, because why wouldn’t you work for the former?

To that end, talk is less than cheap. Ask yourself: how often does my boss/the company deliver on its promised carrots? “Not often” is not a good sign, even if the broken promises are trivial. Listen carefully when coworkers talk about carrots they’ve been offered and keep track of whether they receive them. And if the proffered carrot is in the distant future (e.g. “we’re going to be a billion dollar company in five years”), ask or watch for nearer-term signposts that indicate the likelihood of your receiving said carrot.

What do you do if you realize the carrot is a dangled one? It depends. Are there other reasons to stick around? Someone in their 20’s may do well to stay in an underpaid position if they’re learning at a fast pace, even if they know the company is not likely to be worth a fraction of what the founders promise. But another employee in their 40’s is missing out on peak earning years by doing so, setting themself up for decades of bitterness.

n.b. Dangled carrots are not limited to promotions and raises. Other examples of dangled carrots include impending liquidity-generating acquisitions, lofty future valuations, a transfer to head office, and so on.

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