What is sandbagging in business?

Aiva Strelca 22.07.2022

Back in the 19th century, sandbagging was known as sneakily attacking another person with a sandbag. No attack is good, but sandbagging was an especially sinister move. Today, sandbagging is no longer about physical attacks, but it’s often discussed in the context of business.

What is sandbagging today? In short, intentionally underpromising and overdelivering. Companies can sandbag when dealing with investors or stakeholders. Employees sometimes adopt this technique when striving to receive positive feedback and praise from management. 

Why on earth would someone intentionally lower expectations to deliver a seemingly better-than-anticipated result if their potential reaches way higher – you may think. Well, it can be more complex than it seems. Keep reading to explore what does sandbagging mean in the business world, why companies and individuals engage in this practice, and how to notice it.

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What does sandbagging mean in business?

In sports, sandbagging is defined as fooling one’s opponent into accepting higher bets or lowering ones ranking to compete against weaker opponents to have a better chance at winning. In law, it’s “the act of claiming a breach of a contractual representation or warranty despite having known at the time of the contract that it was untrue”. 

In business, sandbagging means intentionally lowering expectations to deliver a seemingly better result than anticipated. As a result, companies and individuals are seen as outstanding performers, but in reality, they’re quite mediocre and have not demonstrated their full potential. The management, investors, or other stakeholders, however, often have no idea. 

Why does sandbagging occur in the business world?

Woman wondering what is sandbagging

If the expectations are low, it’s easy to surpass them. And who doesn’t want to be THAT person beating the odds, right? However, there are several reasons why sandbagging can occur in business. 

  1. To impress investors and shareholders.

Business executives can decide to predict lower profits or adjust other growth indicators to set lower expectations for investors and shareholders. As the company delivers better results than anticipated, investors and shareholders are more likely to be impressed and interested in continuing business relationships. 

  1. To improve a company’s image.

A business can also adopt sandbagging to improve its public image and gain attention. For example, a company publishes its estimated growth indicators for the next quarter, which are deliberately lower than its actual estimates. The next quarter passes, and the company shows “unexpected” progress, attracting media attention, boosting positive popularity, and improving its public image. 

  1. To gain an advantage in future negotiations.

Underpromising and overdelivering in business can also be used to gain positive reference points for the future. The practice can sometimes be seen in the startup world, where the trust of investors and shareholders is crucial, and it’s difficult to predict how the newly established business will evolve due to many external factors. Having a case of better-than-expected results, thus, is seen as an advantage of potential use in future negotiations.

  1. To meet sales targets.

Sales is another business aspect where sandbagging can be spotted. In fact, it’s considered to be a fairly common practice for sales teams aiming to meet their targets. If one estimates a lower number of sales, they are more likely to accomplish it. Plus, if a company pays bonuses based on meeting the sales targets, underpromising and overdelivering can result in increased bonuses or sales commissions. 

  1. To deal with the fear of failure.

Even though sandbagging doesn’t sound like a praisable practice, it’s not always about personal gains and greediness. Some professionals may adopt this practice due to having extreme fear of failure or feeling that extra attention – even if positive – adds unwanted stress and pressure. In such cases, underpromising serves as a safety net that reduces the pressure to succeed, both inner and external. 

How to detect sandbagging in business & what to do?

Two women in the office discussing work

Sandbagging in business is perceived with mixed feelings. There even are situations where this practice is encouraged, for example, among sales teams wishing to impress management or looking to divert attention as they quietly work on large-scale deals. However, constant underpromising isn’t effective in the long term, as it:

  • Blocks business from maximizing its potential
  • Can mess up your business reputation when sandbagging is revealed
  • Fosters lower ambitions that don’t contribute to growth
  • Can result in missed opportunities

How to identify a sandbagger? 

Exploring and analyzing business data is one way to spot sandbagging in business. While sandbaggers may be hard to identify through conversations, raw data usually is the one to tell the truth. Hiring an independent financial data analyst could be a solution as they’re not involved in a company’s inner processes. 

If you’re suspicious that your sales team could be sandbagging, implementing AI-powered analytics can be one of the solutions. Such tools can analyze the rate at which salespeople complete tasks, communicate with their clients, and more, thus, providing you with data on how effectively they spend their work hours. Time tracking tools are another way to assess worker productivity and efficiency to see if they may be sandbagging to reduce their workload. 

When you’re sure you’ve detected sandbagging, have an honest conversation with the people involved. Prepare the data and have a meeting to discuss the potential reasons behind it. Only when the reasons are clear you can make further decisions on what to do about this growth-sabotaging practice. 

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Concluding remarks

Sandbagging in business is frowned upon by many yet encouraged by some. Companies and individuals adopt it for several reasons, such as wanting to impress investors and shareholders, improve the company’s public image, gain future advantages, meet sales targets, and more. Some sandbag due to fear of failure – they better underpromise to ensure success than risk not meeting some of the expectations. 

To spot a sandbag, one can use the help of an independent financial advisor to overlook financial data or use AI-powered business tools or time tracking to gather data on worker efficiency and productivity. When data implies that there may be sandbagging present, an honest conversation is the best way to get to the root cause of it. Who knows, maybe it’s unintentional, and the problem lies in someone’s lack of confidence in their professional abilities. 

If sandbagging turns out to be intended, talk it through, agree on further actions, and keep an eye on future financial data and work performance to see if sandbagging can find its way out.

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