Check your culture by looking at shared resources.
Is there anything grosser than a neglected break-room microwave oven? If Marvel needs another super-villain, I’d recommend someone spawned from the splatter of last night’s warmed up spaghetti and powered by the fumes of artificially butter-flavored popcorn. Perhaps your break-room microwaves won’t spawn any super-villains – but they are a great place to check your culture.
If you haven’t seen yours in a while, take a look. If you don’t have a microwave, check the refrigerator…or the bathrooms (preferably near the end of the workday).
What did you find?
We share these spaces. Everyone can use them. But…who is responsible for them?
Too often, the answer is “no one.” Over time, it shows. People rush between meetings or for a hurried lunch and something spatters or spills…
and it’s left for the next person.
Even if your organization hires someone to clean these shared spaces each night, take a look near the end of the day. What you find tells you a great deal about the culture of an organization.
A clean microwave tells you people care about one another.
Why Microwaves are a Place to Check Your Culture
In 1968 Garret Hardin studied the phenomenon of the abused shared space. He wrote about farmers overgrazing a shared field and titled his work “the tragedy of the commons“. You’re certainly familiar with it: each person maximizes their own benefit (they save time by leaving their mess in the microwave or increase revenue by grazing their sheep too often).
And we’re also familiar with the consequences: the microwave becomes so disgusting that no one can use it, or the field’s soil is depleted, it dies, and no one can graze sheep at all.
The best thing about the microwave or shared field? These are solvable problems—it just takes leadership.
Waiting for a Hero
Shared spaces are a perfect leadership laboratory. The only way to resolve the tragedy of the commons (or break-room microwave) is for someone to take responsibility and influence others to change their behavior.
Someone has to:
- Recognize the problem – people maximizing short-term benefit that leads to loss of the shared resource
- Take personal responsibility for it
- Make people aware of the problem
- Come up with solutions
- Influence everyone to take part in those solutions – and this means people change their behavior. They give up their short-term self-interest (sacrificing a few minutes to clean up after themselves or sacrificing money to graze sheep less often).
This is much easier in organizational culture with shared values of responsibility, respect, and supporting one another.
When Was the Last Time?
If you want to cultivate a culture of shared responsibility, it starts with you.
CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, made a point of picking up trash when in the parks. Keeping the park spotless was everyone’s responsibility – in action, not just in word. I’m not suggesting a CEO should spend all their time picking up trash – there are other vital tasks they should attend to.
But if you want shared ownership in your team, model it. When was the last time you picked up some trash, wiped out the microwave, or made a new pot of coffee? These things take seconds but speak loudly.
Lead Where You Are
If you are not in a positional leadership role, shared resources are one of your greatest opportunities. Look for areas or services in your organization that everyone needs, but are in disarray because no one owns them.
Take responsibility. Clean it, organize it, create a system to share the service…whatever it is, get others involved. Meetings are a great shared space to practice your leadership. You can be the one to ask who owns the decision and the one to ask who’s doing what, by when, and check on the follow-up. You don’t need a title to lead…and shared resources give you a huge opportunity to show and practice your leadership.
I’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment and share: How do you influence others to take care of shared resources? Why do you think some organizations seem to have an easier time keeping their microwaves clean?
My team does not clean It and evidently doesn’t care. I don’t use it so I don’t want to clean up after them. I will share And see who steps up. I’m thinking whoever does clean first will get a $50 gift certificate. 😀
I’m curious if you see the same behavior elsewhere (or is it just the microwave). How else might you talk about and build a culture where people are looking out for one another and supporting one another’s success?
Thanks for adding to the conversation!
oh… I love the idea of a bit of recognition 😉 You get more of what you encourage and celebrate!
Respectfully, I think you missed the point. Clean the microwave. Be the leader. Watch your team follow your lead.
This conversation has so many facets. Our organization struggles with shared responsibility. Many of our team are young, male, engineers, with maybe a Ph.D. to emphasis that they do important work. So who cleans up? The women on the admin team. Thereby propagating a stereotype and making the work invisible.
At the same time, though, harassing people (you know those emails that everyone hates), isn’t helpful. You can’t ask someone to stop being messy–it’s a kitchen, it happens. But if we all leave just a few crumbs, then by the end of the day, it’s pretty disgusting.
We have to ask people to take a moment and clean up–whoever is responsible–because we value each other and we value our working environment.
Our latest effort is to encourage people to keep the bathrooms clean. How fun is it to write about that in a group email? We started decorating them under the theory that if the space looks nice, people will be encouraged to keep it that way. And if cleaning supplies are easily available, then maybe people will take a moment. Mixed results, including some grumbling but we are trying.
Elizabeth, thanks for the great contribution. The goal isn’t to have a clean microwave. The goal is to have a culture where everyone takes care of shared resources, looks out for, and supports, one another’s success. The microwave or other shared resource is an indicator (as you point out, you can have a toxic culture with a sparkling clean break room). How leaders engage everyone in the conversation, create a shared understanding of what success looks like, and model behavior is what matters most.
What if a dirty break room is the norm at work or people leave a dirty microwave at home. Should we expect a different behavior at work? Or try to change the cultural norm?
Nick – what a great question. Our favorite definition of culture is Seth Godin’s “People like us do things like this.” For leaders to change the culture, they’ve got to explicitly talk about it, engage the team in figuring out what behaviors are truly important, model the change, and help everyone to hold each accountable.
I think the microwave analogy/litmus test is a good one. It reflects another concept of expectations and standards. I believe any organization will rise to the level of expectation IF they have the resources and appropriate motivation. Teams will always look to their leader for vision and validation. Our jobs are to ensure we have the best vision to achieve our goals and provide the right validation to keep the team moving in the right direction. My $.02.
Well said, Sam!
David, you stated, “The goal isn’t to have a clean microwave. The goal is to have a culture where everyone takes care of shared resources, looks out for, and supports, one another’s success.”
Cultural norms aside, how can you lead teams that do not share or support ALL of the same goals?
Hey Nick, thanks for the question. To clarify: the microwave is an indicator of culture. It’s not culture itself. There’s a tendency I’m seeing in some of the comments to focus on whether or not the microwave is clean as opposed to whether or not you are leading a culture that would produce a clean microwave.
Now, to the specifics of your question: First, I would mention that it’s hard to say “cultural norms aside” – culture drives everything. That said, it’s a leader’s job to bring the team together and focused on a common vision and a shared picture of what success looks like. To sum up: if the team doeesn’t share a common goal, then a) it’s not a team and b) that’s the leader’s first job.
Thanks again for the question!
We make it everybody’s responsibility to be respectful, courteous and act with integrity at all times. These are our core values and we never compromise on them in all our dealings, amongst ourselves or in our products and dealings with our customers and all other stakeholders. Our new hires find this culture in place and those who can inappropriate fit self-eject. This is how we influence others to take care of shared resources.
John, That’s awesome! It sounds like you have a powerful and positive culture!
We take care of our shared resources by emphasizing our workplace culture. We value respect for others, having trust among ourselves, being courteously and acting with integrity at all times and in all oud dealings with our customers and other stakeholders. Our hiring and development processes prioritize these attributes with new hires. This way, we are able to make our shared resources the responsibility of everybody within our organization.
Great example, John. Thanks!
What if the employer provides a break room (or bathrooms or other shared spaces) with old or broken appliances, stained floors/carpets, no vacuuming, old chairs and tables, and leaky faucets and sinks? It is hard to expect employees to care and step up to the plate when it is apparent that the employer does not care. This is similar to “putting lipstick on a pig” – and I think most will agree they would rather do their job than clean up a sub-par space.
Hi Marie, there are several answers to this question. The first is that this article is written to leaders – and encourages anyone who leads to take responsibility and contribute to care for shared resources. Certainly, this would include remedying some of the issues you address. The second is that, in an environment where others don’t care, I still have a choice about whether or not I will. Finally, the ultimate message here isn’t “make sure your microwave is clean” – rather, the message is “As a leader, are you leading a culture that produces clean microwaves and people who support one another’s success?”
I love this analogy and find it to be very true. I work in local government with over 50 different agencies. As the manager of one of the units, before leaving the office, I take less than five minutes and set the coffee maker to brew a fresh pot before the first of my team members arrive the next morning. When in a common area cleaning the coffee pot at the end of the day, I have been startled by the comments of others from different work units that are surprised that I would make the coffee for my team. Those that are peers seem shocked, while the subordinates of those same peers seem surprised and in awe. Personally, I find it to be a simple gesture that garners appreciation and sets the mood in the office for the day, even for those that do not consume coffee. There’s nothing like walking in to the smell of a freshly brewed pot of coffee. Our break area remains clean throughout the day. My team is very cohesive and supportive of each other and not because of coffee, its because we truly appreciate each other’s unique talents and contributions to our work unit.
Karen, wow! As a non-coffee-drinker who loves the smell, I agree. What an awesome example of leading the way. A small gesture with big significance.
I’m a manager of a pretty active mobile mental health crisis team. I’ve tried to encourage the maintainence of the vehicles we use, but no success thus far. I’ve cleaned the vehicles myself, made sure that all the necessary extras are in the vehicles, hand sanitizer, etc, but it seems that if don’t do it no one else takes the initiative to do so. When we began operations, the clinical assistants were tasked with vehicle maintainence and the lead clinicians carry the caseloads and paperwork, etc. One of the clinical assistants would always do it, but after he left, no one else continued with it. Our company director noticed this and said something to one of the assistants and encouraged her to clean the vehicle, and she said “I’ll keep that in mind.” All things considered, we generally do have a cohesive team and are supportive of one another. So it isn’t so much that team cohesion isn’t present, I’m just trying to understand this aspect of it. Any advice would be appreciated. Thank you!
First, thank you for the work that you do. In these environments, it can be challenging to take care of these details that feel as though they are less critical to the “real” work you do. Changing behavior will take a combination of activities. It’s awesome that you’re leading by example. Given the work you do, I’m wondering if this should really be a part of people’s job descriptions? Next, you might bring the team together and talk about why vehicle maintenance makes a difference – if you have a strategic story you can share, even better. Then ask the team for their ideas about how you can get there. Come up with 2-4 behaviors that will make the difference as well as a time frame for completion. Set a short time period where the team as a whole will focus on these actions (perhaps 1 week). Celebrate accomplishment. Practice accountability. I have worked with large human service teams who were incredibly committed to their clients. Maintaining their fleet and shared spaces weren’t their first priority, but as we were able to connect those activities to taking care of the clients and practice closing the loop with celebration and accountability, we got there. Thanks for the question – and best of luck!
I try to model the culture I want – taking some time to do the little things, esp. in shared areas but not always. An issue I am encountering is that the leadership where I work does not promote seemingly any culture. They say what they need to and pretty much leave it at that. There are a number of us who want to pull the company along in a growth direction but there is enormous drag. It’s a grass roots effort that we’re trying to propagate in spite of what I feel is lacking leadership.
I feel like our efforts could be quashed in a heartbeat, though. Are there any effective strategies for making a grass roots effort stick?
Strategies for propagating it into the leadership?
I’m sure advocates at all levels would be a start, but how to sell it to an individual manager who has demonstrated a lack of interest in improvement?
Thanks for adding to the discussion, Joe. I wrote a post about this subject. You can find it here: https://letsgrowleaders.com/2019/11/25/how-to-build-a-better-boss/
It’s not uncommon to feel the way you do. Two of the most common scenarios are that leaders are comfortable where they are and don’t want to change. The other is that leaders are confronting different challenges that gung-ho team members aren’t aware of. Either way, the starting point is a conversation. “Hey leader, we’ve done some thinking and it looks like we can achieve a, b, and c if we x, y, and z. Is that something you’re interested in discussing?” Assuming that a, b, and c are things they care about, that’s often enough to start a conversation. If they aren’t interested in the benefits you describe, is there a way you can put the change in terms of benefits they do care about? If not, the next option is to maintain the change at your level.