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.
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