Looking for Team Engagement? Check the Microwave

Is there anything more nasty than a neglected break-room microwave oven?

If a comic-book super-villain ever attacks earth, it will likely emerge from the splatter of last night's warmed over spaghetti and be fueled by the petroleum fumes of artificially butter-flavored popcorn.

Take a Peek

Want a quick look at your organization's culture? Examine your break-room microwaves.

If you haven't seen yours in a while, go take a look.

If you don't have a microwave, check the refrigerator…or the bathrooms (preferably near the end of the work day).

What did you find?

Why Microwaves, Refrigerators, and Bathrooms Count

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 is 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.


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".

We're all 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.

What I love about the microwave or shared field is that these are solvable problems.

The tool used to solve that problem of the commons?


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.

This is no small task!

Think about the leadership involved. Someone (not necessarily a positional leader) has to:

  • Recognize the problem - people maximizing short-term benefit that leads to loss of the shared resource
  • Take personal responsibility for it
  • Make others aware of the problem
  • Generate solutions
  • Influence everyone to participate in those solutions - and this always 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 an organizational culture where shared responsibility is the norm.

What Did You Find?

A build-up of thick crud no one will touch?

Or is it reasonably clean?

In an organization with a culture of shared ownership, the microwaves, bathrooms, and refrigerators tend to be clean.

Everyone understands they are responsible…that it all belongs to them.

In my work with leaders, I regularly hear a desire for their teams to "own more".

The words vary:

  • "more entrepreneurial spirit"
  • "I want them to own the mission"
  • "be more responsible"
  • "to pay attention to detail"

Anyone who's been leading for any length of time recognizes the need for everyone to share commitment.

But too often, leaders say they want team ownership, but then don't act to encourage it.

When Was the Last Time...?

Shared ownership begins with you.

While 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've worked with high school Principals who modeled the same behavior.

I'm not suggesting a CEO or Principal 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 they communicate volumes.

Once you've set the example, sustain shared responsibility through trust, respect, some autonomy, and appreciation.

Lead Where You Are

If you are not a titled leader, 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.

Make sure responsibilities are clearly defined after a decision - it will have a major impact on the team (and on your career!)

You don't need a title to lead…and shared resources give you a huge opportunity to demonstrate and practice your leadership.

Your Turn

How do you influence others to take care of shared resources?

Why do you think some organization's seem to have an easier time keeping their microwaves and bathroom's clean?

How clean is your microwave?

Take care,

David M. Dye

Photo Credits: Microwave by Jason Burrows, Sheep by ekieraM, Cleanup by Bryan Bowden.

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