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The Something-For-Something System is at the Heart of the Uninspiring Workplace.

The Game We Play

Management by Exception


The something-for-something system is what happens in most organizations today.

Here is how it works: You come into work and give some of your time in return for a salary. If you work a bit harder, more, or better, you expect that you will also be rewarded for it—probably through some sort of bonus, overtime pay, or promotion, even.

If you don’t work hard or perform your job well, it is built into the system that you can expect some kind of "punishment."

The assumption is that you come to work because it is in your interest. You need the money so you can pay your rent, feed the kids, or play golf during the weekend. It’s a something-for-something kind of thinking which has thousands of years behind it. Technically, it is known as transactional leadership.

The Game We Play

If the employer and the employee, or probably in your case, the manager and the employee, have a relationship which basically is about something-for-something, then it easily becomes a game where you, as an employee, try to get away with doing as little as possible while at the same time getting the maximum amount out.

In that perspective, you could say that from the employee’s perspective, you have won something if you managed to do less and still get paid the same amount. That would be a win for you.

The manager’s role in an organization that practices transactional leadership is also not always exciting either because the manager’s most important role is to control whether or not the organization is getting the output that the organization is paying for. That means time-stamping, control sheets, registration, serious conversations, the possibility of written warnings, and eventually, the ultimate punishment—layoffs.

In a transactional world, an effective manager is a person who distributes reward and punishment in such a way that he maximizes the output of the employee.

It becomes all about management, leaving no time for real leadership.

Management by Exception

In a transactional world, the manager supervises by exception. It means that the manager is only exercising their management role when something is not working according to plan or not living up to expectations. Only when their employee's not doing what they’re supposed to do do some managers put on their caps and respond to the situation.

One factor might be that some managers don’t enjoy being "bossy." As a result, the management role easily turns into non-management⁠ one—something that must only happen when necessary.

If things are going somewhat okay, then there’s no real reason to do much, is there? It becomes allows the workplace to have a "let sleeping dogs lie" atmosphere. And in organizations that are not doing well, the supervisor, who is supposed to manage the front lines, gets this same treatment from their department head, who gets the same laissez-faire management from the division head, and so on. The something-for-something culture runs and shows itself through the system.

Unfortunately, a lot of research shows that this leadership style is neither inspiring nor productive. It’s not something that creates an extraordinary organization or remarkably enthusiastic and loyal customers.

It produces something that is often okay, but rarely impressive.

It’s built into the model that it has to be like that; it's all that can happen as long as you have that mindset.

Now, I hope you are beginning to see what the problem is.

As long as you understand the world from the transactional paradigm⁠—the something-for-something mindset—you won't be getting any further towards what you and your team want to achieve. You become stuck.

What's it going to take?

Well, as Frederic Laloux states in his book Reinventing Organizations, you need to move into a completely different mindset. You need to change your paradigm. You need to switch from transactional leadership to transformational leadership.


Further Reading: Leadership: What, Why and How

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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.

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