The something for something system is at the heart of the uninspiring workplace.


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, or a little bit more, or a little bit better, you have an expectation that you will also be rewarded for it — a bonus, overtime pay, a promotion, or whatever.

If you don’t work so hard or don’t do your job very well, it is built into the model that you can expect some kind of ‘punishment’.

The assumption is that you come to work because it is in your own 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 in practical terms, the manager and the employee, have a relationship which basically is about something-for-something, then it very 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 actually won something if you managed to do a little bit less and still get paid the same for it. That would be a win for you.

The manager’s role in an organization that practices transactional leadership is not very exiting either, because what this means is that the manager’s most important role is to control whether or not the organization is actually 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’s all about management and there is no time for real leadership.

Management by Exception

In a transactional world, the manager manages by exception. By that, I mean that the manager is actually only exercising their management role when something is not working according to the plan, not living up to the expectations. Only when somebody’s not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, they put on their managers cap and do something… maybe.

Maybe, because as most of us don’t actually enjoy being bossy. As a result, the management role easily turns into non-management – something I only do if I absolutely must.

If things are going sort of reasonably OK, then there’s no real reason to do much, is there? It becomes a sort of ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ atmosphere. And in the organizations that are really bad, the supervisor, who is supposed to manage his front-line, gets this same treatment from his department head, who gets exactly the same laissez-faire management from the division VP or whatever. The something-for-something culture runs all the way through the system.

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

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

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

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

As long as we understand the world from a transactional paradigm, the something-for-something mindset, we aren’t going to get any further. We are stuck.

So, what is it going to take?

Well, as Frederic Laloux says, we need to move into a completely different mindset. We need to change our paradigm. We need to switch from transactional leadership to transformational leadership.


This post is one of a series where we are exploring the notion of leadership and how this is different from management. Our starting point is the Service Profit Chain and the understating that the management part of our job will only take us so far. If we really want to create an organisation that is capable of delivering outstanding customer experiences, we need to develop an organisation that delivers outstanding employee experiences – and that requires leadership. You can check out other articles of the series below:

  1. Are you an inspiring leader to work for?
  2. What does it require to be an inspirational leader?