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Owning the Mess -

Owning the Mess

Posted by on Apr 11, 2014 | 2 Comments

take out coffee cartoon (raster version)

I was sitting on the train yesterday, heading into the city (that’s NYC, for those of you “not from around these parts”), when all of the sudden a gush of coffee started pouring down the aisle.  I looked ahead three rows and there was a coffee cup that had spilled that had been sitting on the floor next to the man in the seat.  I politely said to the man, “Excuse me…..ummm….is that your coffee?”  He looked down at the disgusting river of coffee that kept pouring out of the cup and, turning back to his newspaper said, “It’s not my mess.  Not my mess.”  The coffee kept flowing.

Now I get it.  It’s kind of gross to pick up a stranger’s used coffee cup that has already spilled (thanks to my waitressing-days in my early 20′s I don’t really struggle with that), but…  I think the “It’s not my mess” thing is one of the biggest challenges we have in our businesses.  Because if we want our businesses to soar, our cultures to thrive, and to make an impact on the lives of our customers, then it is.  The mess belongs to everyone.  Always.

So I don’t want to point fingers at the stranger who left the coffee cup, or the newspaper guy who dismissed the coffee cup, or at anyone else on the train who turned a blind eye to the coffee cup – but I do want to point out that while we may not have had anything to do with creating the mess, we were all now sitting in the mess together.  It was our mess that we had to live with all the way to Grand Central Station.

How can we shift the thinking in our organizations to create a shared desire to deal with the mess around us?  Whether it’s negativity that’s spilling over, workloads that are over-flowing, or processes that need to be fixed, the mess belongs to us all because we’re all on the ride together.

Like everything else, it starts with us.  We’re the leaders (and if you know me, you know that’s not a title-thing).  If change is going to happen we have to be the first to model owning the mess.  Not outsourcing clean-up, or accusing the mess-makers, or being too busy to pay attention to what it’s doing to the environment.  We need to be the one who picks up the coffee cup.  Who thanks the other coffee-cup-picker-uppers.  Who owns the mess.

For if we’re too good to pick up the mess, then we better be prepared to sit in.


©OnStage Leadership, 2014;  Kimberly Davis is the Founder/Director of OnStage Leadership, a full-day experiential leadership workshop. 


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  1. Stephen
    April 11, 2014

    I was a Psychology major in college. Although I never became a Psychologist, I did learn a lot. Your article reminds me of so many studies I learned about in college. There was one study where there was a crowd of people in a public place and one person “Gets hurt” and out of 100 people in the room only 1 person goes to help. Now, set up the same scenario where there were 5 people in the room and someone gets hurt. All of a sudden all 5 go to the rescue of the victim. What was learned is that if all eyes were on you then you tend to not want to stand out in the crowed so you help, but if there was someone else there then human nature was that someone else can do it. To be better at our jobs we should strive to change it.

  2. Kimberly
    April 12, 2014

    How very interesting! Thanks so much for sharing. So if it’s your hypothesis that it’s the large-group mentality that’s the barrier to people stepping up, what are your ideas about how to bring about “ownership-of-the-mess” change organizationally?

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