“My boss was breadcrumbing me for 2 years”

Written by Bethan King

We wouldn’t stay in a romantic relationship for years if our partner wouldn’t commit, so why do so many of us fall for it when our bosses do it? Bethan King explores her own experience of breadcrumbing at work.

I’ll never forget landing my first job on a glossy magazine. I was in my early 20s and thought I’d made it; my editorial assistant role was set to be my big break into journalism. Keen to impress, I fell over myself to get bylines and volunteered to do the tasks nobody wanted. It didn’t go unnoticed. “I’d really like you to be an associate editor in a year or two,” my boss said after my first few months. I was thrilled – it was a big promotion opportunity.

She hinted at it again a few times soon after. So naturally, I thought if I proved myself, eventually the job would be mine. I took on more responsibility well above my pay grade. But at my appraisal a year on, despite my boss saying I’d surpassed expectations, she didn’t mention the promotion. I was so confused.

“Breadcrumbing, where one party shows just enough attention towards the other to keep them keen, is a watchword in romantic relationships, but it happens on a platonic level in the workplace too,” explains Nicki Bass, a business psychologist at Resilience at Work. “At work we’re hardwired to respect the imbalance of power between boss and employee. Yet if your superior regularly hints at promotions, opportunities or pay rises without ever delivering, just like in dating, this non-committal behaviour can be a red flag.” 

During that appraisal with my boss, I was so stunned she’d not mentioned the promotion we’d informally discussed, I couldn’t find the words to ask her about it. “Workplace breadcrumbing usually happens casually and consistently over time. It leaves you feeling like you’re in limbo, questioning your understanding of what’s been said and your self-worth,” says Bass.

Afterwards, I started second-guessing my abilities. Had my standards slipped? Maybe I’d misunderstood. More worryingly, had my boss forgotten? “When breadcrumbing occurs it isn’t necessarily intentional or malicious – bosses want to keep you happy and motivated,” says clinical psychologist and executive coach Dr Samantha Madhosingh. “But sometimes, faced with their own pressures, bosses might intentionally hint at fresh, exciting opportunities that aren’t really possible to ensure their team doesn’t move on.”

As the months drifted by, I suspected the promotion wasn’t happening. But I had no idea how to approach my boss. “After any informal chats, follow up with an email,” advises Bass. “Let your boss know you want to check you have a correct understanding of the opportunity they’ve mentioned and say you’re looking forward to hearing more. This shows you’re serious about moving things forward. If you don’t get a response or feel your boss is being flaky, request a formal meeting. Ask if there is a way of progressing with the opportunity you’ve discussed – this helps you to regain some power.” 

In my case, after 18 months of driving myself crazy by second-guessing everything, I requested a one-to-one. I asked my boss outright if the promotion she’d mentioned was a possibility – particularly now I’d demonstrated I could fulfil the role in question. She looked startled before mumbling that although she’d love to offer me the job, the role just simply wasn’t there within the company. Instead, she offered “a bit of a pay rise”.

She’d totally missed the point. I felt blindsided, as though I’d been strung along. I no longer trusted her as a mentor and felt my hard work had been taken advantage of. “There’s a fine line between complimenting an employee and hinting at opportunities you can’t deliver because you don’t have the authority,” says Dr Madhosingh. “As the employee, if this happens to you, it’s natural to feel betrayed. The professional trust is shattered. It wrecks your self-confidence. There’s anger to process too – it can feel like your career path’s been derailed by someone you trusted.”

Personally, I also felt foolish for believing in something that was never actually going to happen. I kicked myself for not asking my boss outright about it earlier. “Understand breadcrumbing is their failure as a leader, not yours,” says Bass. “They should have been honest about what was possible from the outset. It’s possible to rebuild professional trust if you can have a formal meeting with your boss about your career development with clear timelines and goals you are both working towards and regular progress follow-ups. If your boss can’t do that or doesn’t stick to it, it’s concerning and you could speak to your HR department.” 

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I wasn’t sure what to do next. For me, the fallout was realising my boss didn’t have my back and that my career couldn’t progress further in that organisation, so I took a leap of faith to go freelance. “If once you’ve had a formal, frank discussion there isn’t a clear path to where you want to be, it might be time to reassess what you want and need,” says Dr Madhosingh.

During my exit interview I made the reasons I was leaving explicit. I hoped that, if nothing else, it would prevent anyone else from being given false hope. Thankfully, being self-employed helped me regain my confidence and I soon landed a deputy features editor role on a magazine. After experiencing breadcrumbing first-hand, I was still wary of any nods to promotions or pay rises. Reassuringly, my new boss was only too happy to formalise career progression discussions, so I knew where I was heading.

I’ve learned the hard way that, in the workplace, what people say and do – or are actually able to do – are very different things. “A manager might have good intentions, but it’s vital they provide a clear understanding of what’s realistic,” says Bass. “Don’t be afraid to ask for regular, formal feedback. If you suspect breadcrumbing when informal chats occur or hints are dropped, make notes afterwards of what was discussed and when so that you can refer back if need be.”

With hindsight, I don’t regret taking that first job –I gained solid experience and knowledge of the industry. But the truth is, I wouldn’t have stayed in a non-committal romantic relationship for nearly two years. I just wish I’d applied that logic to my work ethic too and hadn’t stayed so long in a professional relationship that clearly wasn’t going to be in my best interests.   

Images: venimo/Getty

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