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Editorial: The One with the Starbucks Cup

Editorial: The One with the Starbucks Cup

Issue 11.2
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No, this is not a story about some barista somewhere diligently misspelling my name (with my name, I gave up a long time on hoping for accuracy there). It’s about an actual Starbucks cup that was casually dropped and left on the ground in front of my apartment building a little while back.

Right before you enter my building, you need to climb one solitary step before you walk for another meter or so to the door. The cup was, in my mind, clearly dropped while someone was trying to open the door coffee-in-hand. Looking at the splatter evidence, it fell right in front of the door and rolled over just to the edge of the step, with most of the coffee that was not expelled during the roll being spilled on the sidewalk below the step. It was early morning when I noticed it walking outside my building to take my mutt out for a walk, and it was a recent incident – coffee was still slowly dripping out of the freshly-dropped cup onto the walkway.

When I returned from my morning doggo walk, I couldn’t help but notice that the sidewalk had been cleaned. Most of the spillage from the walkway was washed away. Alas, the cup was still there, dangling over the edge with a few drops of coffee having made it out of the cup and onto the pavement post-clean-up. I was amused by it at the time. The street cleaners clearly had passed through and decided “not my job to clean up the building’s step” – particularly funny to me because the leftovers were now (re-)dirtying up the very pavement that was just cleaned. I took a long step over the puddle of coffee and proceeded upstairs.

When I left for the office that morning, I was thoroughly entertained to notice that I didn’t need to avoid a puddle anymore – the building cleaner had whipped the floor just outside of the door – but the cup of coffee was still there, just on the edge. “Heh,” I thought to myself, “I guess their mandate ends within the building, and they were just courteous to building residents to clear out the area just in front of the door.” The next day, once I knew both the street and building cleaners had had their rounds, the cup was still there, untouched.

With my educational roots in organizational behavior, I couldn’t help but pay attention to this dynamic that, I assume, went unnoticed by most passing by. Within an organizational setting – a team, a company, or society – I still mentally break down input based on two axes. One is the straightforward one of “performance.” The other is that of “trust.” Generally, business endeavors are obsessed with the “performance” one: Did you hit your X quota? Did you bill X amount? Etc. “Trust” is a bit trickier. I always think of a pirate crew. “How much you pillaged” is an easy performance metric. “I may trust you with my life but do I trust you with my money or my wife?” – is how I differentiate the “performance” metric from the “trust” one. Within organizations, “performance” is also easily trackable because, as I mentioned, we, as a culture, are obsessed with it and have developed a lot of KPIs to measure it.

If you want to track down the one person on the high end of the “performance” axis within any organization, I recommend simply asking all: “Who’s the asshole?” If, however, you want to track down the top, ahem, performer, on the “trust” axis, ask: “Who’s always there?” We’re so consumed with identifying the asshole because they impact the bottom line directly that we, all too often, forget to worry about the one always there. And the reality is, they are just as, if not more, important. They are the oil that keeps your organizational cogs rolling away – the silent heroes who allow for all the magic to happen for all the assholes to get away with, well, being assholes. They are the ones who’ll step in on a call that’s not theirs to take, who will support a client in a manner that is not covered by everyone’s job description, and who will pick up a Starbucks cup of coffee if it’s outside of their perimeter of responsibility just because, well, that cup belongs in a bin.

Arriving home from the office three days after the original spillage, the cup was still there. Before I entered the building, I casually toe-poked it onto the pavement. It was about time it was no longer stuck in no man’s land. I could’ve picked it up and chucked it in the bin, of course, but it was not my job.

This article was originally published in Issue 11.2 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.