Soul of Startups
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Soul of Startups

Everything About The Kitchen Sink

A few years ago, I was in a forum with some CEOs who were talking about various problems they had at their companies. One question caught my attention in particular: “What do you do about the dishes in the sink?”

Photo from Pixabay

It seems like an innocuous and even boring question, but the responses were on as wide of a spectrum as I’ve ever seen in terms of startup advice, and reflected more about the person giving the advice and the values that were important at their company.

On one end was the accountability value. Suggestions on this end of the spectrum included a company that on your first day gave you one fork, bowl, glass, plate, spoon, knife and fork all with your name on it. If it was found in the sink, everyone knew it was yours. How effective it was at dirty dish deterrence probably depends on social awareness and how sensitive people are to what others think about them. Another company chose to have a webcam above the sink area so that people who left dirty dishes in the sink were caught on camera. I don’t know if the camera itself was enough or if someone actually looked back through the film to answer the question, who left the dirty dishes in the sink? And who’s job is that?

On the other end of the spectrum, some CEOs didn’t care if people took any responsibility for their dirty dishes, they cared more about efficiency. Some companies hired someone to clean the sink so that it wasn’t an employee’s problem and they were happy to pay more for the solution. My least favorite solution was sticking the office manager or executive assistant with the detail, often perpetuating crappy gender and class norms. The day you are too important to put your own dirty coffee cup in the dishwasher is the last day I want to know you.

Similar to the pay more to solve the problem perspective but with a little more responsibility on the individual are CEOs that just paid to have two dishwashers so that one was always available. Spoiler alert, this is my favorite solution, and if you ever design an office for more than 20 people, please consider it as an option. It doesn’t completely solve the problem, dishes still end up in the sink, but it’s much more likely that there’s somewhere to put them, and that stops them from continuing to stack up. In my experience, there are people with moments of extra bandwidth you don’t mind taking a break and doing something different for a few minutes and that might include putting six coffee cups, theirs and five others in an empty dishwasher. But that doesn’t happen if there’s no empty dishwasher to put those dirty cups in, they become an addition to the problem by leaving their cup as well. In general, people will do the right thing if friction is low.

But there was at least one other suggestion that caught my attention. One CEO said they never designed an office where the kitchen wasn’t high visibility to the rest of the company, and if there were dirty dishes in the sink, the CEO took the time to wash them or put them in the dishwasher. In that office, everyone could see the CEO cleaning up their dish and the point was to confront them with the question of whether they thought that was the best use of their CEO’s time. It doesn’t surprise me that that particular company had awareness or conscientiousness as a core value.

The bigger point is that without trying, this is a Rorschach test for who you are and who your employees are. It’s one of the understated and subtle places where culture is suddenly visible. The solution I didn’t talk about but would appeal to some CEOs is to do nothing about it. In those offices, it’s usually the person who cares most about cleanliness that ends up doing everyone else’s dishes, and to that, some CEOs say, “What’s the problem?” They don’t see how it impacts the person who feels comfortable in an office that looks like someone cares how it looks. And leaders should care about how the office looks. The broken windows theory tells us a lot about how people treat the space and by extension each other in a place that with broken windows (i.e. an overflowing sink of dishes) vs. a clean (not necessarily fancy) space. We also know from research that Google did on high-performing teams that the best teams feel cared for, part of feeling psychologically safe. So if the logic holds that people will feel more cared for in a space that feels more cared for, then it is every leaders job to figure out the best way to solve for the enigmatic kitchen sink conundrum.




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Julie Penner

Julie Penner

Founder and author of Soul of Startups and #Ruleof5. Venture Partner at Frazier Group. EIR at Telluride Venture Network. Coach. Facilitator. Challenger.

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