Patterns for Success – The Break Room Slob3 min read

There it is again. Somebody left a bowl of hummus in the sink, half-filled with water, as if they’re waiting for someone else to come and clean it up. Or they just want you to be revolted by it.

You know who it is. Jimmy from the Sales team was just eating hummus 20 minutes ago, and you already know he’s kind of a slob. It would be so easy to confront him about it. Or to leave a passive-aggressive note hanging up on the bulletin board to out him and shame him for being a break room slob.

But there’s another course of action that you may not have considered: let it go.

The boffins say we’re hard wired for a very rigid form of autistic justice, that we have a very developed sense of right and wrong, and will latch on tenaciously to any perceived wrong. They may be right, that this is our instinct, but this is one of those instincts that can set us apart from everyone else in a bad way. More often than not, when one of us sets teeth into an issue that seems important to us but trivial to everyone else, we paint ourselves in a bad light through our response. There’s a fairly good chance that instead of siding with you in your campaign of exposing Jimmy’s slovenly ways, your colleagues may wonder why you’re making a scene.

There are two other responses to Jimmy the Slob that I’d like for you to consider:

  1. Just ignore that nasty bowl of hummus in the break room sink. Nobody will think any less of you, and even though Jimmy will probably continue to be a slob, he’s not going to have the satisfaction of bringing you down with him.
  2. Roll up your sleeves and wash it yourself. Don’t make a scene of it, but if someone notices you performing this simple act of service, your reputation around the office may well improve. And, who knows, maybe someone else will tell Jimmy that you’ve been quietly cleaning up after him. He may change his ways. Don’t count on it, but your chances of success are better here.

You’ll hear a lot of metaphors in the business world, and many of them have to do with boats for some reason. “The leak isn’t on my end of the boat” is one common metaphor used to describe how any leak in the boat is likely to fill it with water and sink it. Even if it’s not your leak, you’re in the same boat. Fixing that leak is going to help you and everyone else in it. “We’re all in the same boat,” after all.

All of these maritime metaphors are making me seasick, so I’ll leave you with this advice: rather than being an agent for justice in the office, try instead to be an agent for servant leadership. Rather than resenting your contributions, you may well become the example that others will strive to emulate.

Our innate sense of right and wrong can be a powerful servant or a fearful master, and it’s not always clear which way that’s going to go. Be creative and find a better way, a way that helps everyone. May your break room sink be clean and free of slobby deposits, and may success be yours!