We were at an outdoor barbeque earlier this summer, extolling the virtues of the hostess’ fantastic array of food. Talk turned to food at the office and how there’s always some sort of tasty treat being laid out for munching. Pete piped up—“Yeah, I know what you mean—I can hardly resist the M&M bowl. I suppose I should fill it, since I do like my M&M’s.” Pete’s wife Sally turned to him and said “Is it a community bowl?” Pete sheepishly added, “Yeah, we’re supposed to take turns and I just haven’t gotten around to it.”
Now, the story up to this point is fairly innocuous. Big deal, Pete hasn’t held up his share of the office Munch Fest. Give him a break, he’s busy. It’s not like he started the M&M Community Bowl thing. Except that Pete’s the leader in the office.
Does that change your perception of the story in any way?
One of the toughest things about leadership is how easy it is to forget about the “little” things in the office. Maybe nobody’s noticing how many M&M’s Pete’s eating. But maybe they are. There are the many small, seemingly inconsequential ways that leaders slowly, unknowingly give off signals that say, “I’m too busy” or “I’m above it all.”
This real-life scenario reminds me of a story in the book Freakonomics in which it turned out that the higher one’s rank in the office, the more likely you were to “forget” to pay for the bagel you took from the “honor” system bagel table. (See New York Times Magazine article for details.)
Now, I know Pete and he’s an honest, hard-working guy and an all-around great leader. He routinely gets high marks from his employees for his solid supervisory and leadership skills. In this case, he simply forgot that many times, appearances of “pitching in” are very important to employees.
I talked with Pete’s wife Sally a few days later. She reported that Pete got enough ribbing at the barbeque that he went right out and bought an industrial-sized bag of M&M’s for the office. Who says peer pressure is a bad thing?