The Fable of the Dangling Carrot

Dangling Carrot

A long time ago, in a meadow far, far away… there lived three rabbits.  They were all happy, hard-working, and ambitious young bunnies who supported themselves and their families by farming lettuce in their three neighboring fields.  The rabbits had become good friends and often helped each other so that they could maximize their collective success.  Their boss was a sly, old fox who was quite happy with the rabbit’s results, but wondered if there were a way that he could motivate them to work even harder.  The fox was rather perplexed about how best to do this as he had nothing tangible to offer the rabbits, but he was greedy to grow his business so he set off to devise a plan.

The fox locked himself in his burrow for several days, brainstorming, ideating, and deep-diving before finally he had a scheme that he thought just might work.  So the next morning he went to the meadow, called the three rabbits into a meeting, and began to unveil his plan.  “You all have done a masterful job of building our lettuce business,” said the fox, “and I have been quite happy with your success.”  The rabbits all smiled proudly, looking around at the lettuce fields that they grown.  “However…” said the fox, “the times are changing and we need to step-change our progress and to grow more lettuce than ever before!”  The rabbits gave him their full attention and anxiously awaited the brilliant vision from the fox.  The fox proclaimed, “If we are truly successful then one or more of you will have the opportunity to leave these lettuce fields and to gain a more prestigious role, to bring in more green for your families, and to even supervise some rabbits of your own.”  The fox then pulled a juicy, orange carrot from his pocket and dangled it in front of the bunnies… whose eyes and mouths were now widely gaping.

“If you can seize this challenge, work even harder, and achieve breakthrough results, then you may have the opportunity to farm carrots like these instead of that boring, old lettuce… and only then will you experience unprecedented success and glory.”  The first bunny exclaimed, “Wow! I want those carrots!  How much progress must I make?”  The second bunny blurted, “That is amazing!  When will we know who has succeeded?”  And the third bunny, looking intrigued but more skeptical, asked, “What’s the catch?”  The fox, expecting these questions, calmly explained, “There is no catch… you have my word that there are carrots on the horizon.  I can’t give you specifics on when or how much, as the future is very uncertain, but I can say that the harder that you work, the better your chances.”  With that, the first two bunnies ran to their fields and began working while the third bunny went off to find a quiet place to think.  And the fox walked away, feeling confident that his plan had succeeded.

What the racing rabbits did not realize, however, was that when the fox dangled that carrot, there was no carrot field yet to be found.  The fox wanted to be in the carrot business, and hoped that he could deliver on his proclamation… but had no tangible carrot to offer.  He decided to sit back and wait to see how the rabbits responded before planning his next move.

Back at the meadow, the first rabbit had built a fence around his field and was working alone harder and faster than ever before.  The second rabbit had chosen not to seclude himself from the others and continued to work during the day as usual… however, every night he left his family and went back to the field to work alone through the night.  The third rabbit chose not to change his behavior, but rather to keep doing what had been successful in the past.  However, because the rabbits were no longer working together, it had become harder and less fulfilling to deliver the same results.

After the first year, the fox came back, carrying the juicy dangling carrot, to assess the rabbits’ results.  He entered into the first rabbit’s fence and was pleased to see that the lettuce field was noticeably bigger and more fruitful than ever before.  The rabbit looked tired… but proud of what he had done.  When the fox went to the second field, the rabbit was not yet there but was running from his home looking dismayed.  The fox was pleased to see the progress, but the bunny looked distracted and desperate that he had done enough to earn the carrot that the fox still held.  At the third field, the rabbit stood, content with his work, which was not a dramatic improvement from the previous year but consistently strong.  The fox shook his head in disapproval, and went on to praise the first two rabbits.  “I am quite pleased,” said the fox, “and clearly you have been working hard to reach our goals.”  “Unfortunately,” he stated slowly, “there is no carrot field to be awarded this year… but if you keep up the good work then maybe next year will be the year!”  The third bunny shrugged and went back to his field, the second bunny had tears in his eyes as he sulked back toward his house, while the first bunny looked angry but determined as he hopped quickly back inside his fence.  Each went back to work in their respective fields, determined to earn the elusive carrot from the fox.

Another year passed, and when it came time for the “carrot dangling” the fox was almost giddy as he pranced back to the rabbits’ fields.  He could not wait to see how much more that they had accomplished, and to figure out how much richer he would become.  However, as he approached the fields he started to become suspicious that his plan was not working like he had thought.  When he approached the first bunny’s fence, the bunny rushed up to meet him and began taking the fox through an extensive presentation about why he, and not the other two bunnies, deserved the carrot field.  He had elaborate charts, drawings, and graphs on his fence wall and spoke extensively about his personal merits (and the flaws of the other two rabbits!).  It was an impressive display, but the rabbit talked for so long, that the fox did not even have time to look behind the fence to see the actual field.  As he walked over to the second rabbit, he could see the dark circles under the bunny’s eyes and a look of pleading upon his face.  The bunny pulled out his timecard and showed how many extra hours that he had invested, how many nights he had spent in the field, and how hard it had been to be away from his family for so long.  The fox gave him an encouraging pat on the back, tried to look empathetic, and thanked him for his work. He then slipped away and went over to the third bunny’s field.  The third bunny barely looked up from his work as the fox approached.  The fox surveyed the field and saw the consistent results that he had grown to expect, but was surprised by the bunny’s general lack of interest.

He engaged the third bunny in conversation, and the bunny told the fox, “I know that you are probably pleased with the short-term results that we have all achieved, but I am concerned about the long-term implications.  One bunny is so concerned with the prestige of earning his carrot that he is neglecting his actual work, and his working relationships, to invest more time in ‘campaigning’.  The other is spending so much time away from his family that I am worried about his health and well-being.  And for me… the culture just is not very collaborative anymore and it is no longer fun for me to work in the fields.”  The fox looked shocked at these words and also at the third rabbit’s questioning of the fox’s own masterful plan.  He gave a disapproving stare to the bunny and then went to address them all.  “Brilliant work and strong results for each and every one of you”, said the fox.  “I am pleased by your progress and optimistic about our future.”  “However… while our results are good, they are not good enough and I am sorry to inform you that there are no carrots to be awarded this year”, the fox said slowly and carefully.  He waited, as the rabbits’ reaction clearly showed their frustration and disappointment before saying, “But I am optimistic that next year just might be the Year of the Carrot!”

The fox then quickly left the fields to go back to his burrow and to count his profits.  He was still quite pleased with how his plan was proceeding, but was beginning to worry about the third bunny’s words of caution.  The fox knew that he would eventually need to come through on his carrot promise, but decided to wait one more year and to further line his pockets before finding a way to award the carrot.

At the time of the third year’s review, the fox went back to the fields.  He tried to remain optimistic as to what he would find, but had a lingering doubt in the back of his mind.  And as he approached the first bunny’s field, his doubt was rapidly turning into concern.  He saw that the fence was higher, that the graphs and charts were more extensive, and that the bunny was ready for another profound presentation to impress the fox.  It was clear that this bunny was no longer on speaking terms with the other two bunnies and that he had become obsessed with nothing but winning the carrot.  The fox stopped the bunny before the “sales pitch” could start and instead went inside the fence.  The fox has shocked and dismayed to see that both the quantity and the quality of the lettuce field had deteriorated rapidly!  Clearly the bunny had focused on style over substance, and the results had suffered dramatically.  Anxiously, the fox hurried out of the fence (with the first bunny hopping behind him still trying to deliver his rehearsed presentation) and went to the second bunny’s field.  The bunny looked much more content and healthy than the previous years, and told the fox, “You may notice that my field is smaller this year.  The quality is still high, but I decided that I needed to spend more time with my family and less time in the fields.  I had become so obsessed with the carrot that I was neglecting my family… and I realized that carrots weren’t really that important to me anyways.”  The fox was glad to see the high quality, but dismayed to see yet another decrease in production.  He went over to the third field and again saw the consistent, steady growth that he had grown to expect… but the third bunny was nowhere to be found.  He saw a note from the bunny that said, “Dear Fox, Thank you for the opportunity and I apologize for the short notice.  I have decided to leave this job and to go to work for myself growing my own lettuce.  I wish you luck and please send my best regards to the other two bunnies. May you all solve the dilemma of the dangling carrot.”

The fox was floored and dismayed by what had happened, and shocked by the failure of his plan.  He hurried back to his burrow (when he finally evaded the first bunny who was still unceasingly continuing his pitch), to deal with the realization of the situation.  Now… not only were there no carrots in the horizon, but there was no longer enough lettuce either.  He looked onto his table at the carrot that he had been dangling, and what had once looked bright and promising now looked cold and depressing.  That very carrot, which had once tantalized and entranced the bunnies, now just teased and mocked him. The fox tossed the carrot in the trash and sat wondering how his leadership of the bunnies had gone so wrong. He then saw a turnip on his shelf and had a new, brilliant idea…

The Moral of the Story:

For the Fox:  As managers, we Must Not dangle a carrot unless we can deliver, otherwise we will create a culture where our bunnies will become disgruntled, distracted, and disappearing… and we will become a leader with no followers.

For the Bunnies:  Before we blindly chase a carrot, we must make sure that 1) we even like carrots, 2) That the carrots are real, and 3) That we understand the costs of the chase.

—————–

Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

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