Dear Office Politics,

I am one of two partners in a small business. We have a total of seven people in our office, including the two of us. My business partner and I cannot seem to agree on her attitude toward the kitchen.

I know it seems small, but she does not believe that it is her responsibility to clean up after herself. She leaves dishes in the sink and insists that our receptionist clean up after her and get her coffee, etc. I am from the other extreme where I believe that we should all be responsible for cleaning up after ourselves. All of our employees clean up after themselves. I have asked her on several occasions to clean up after herself, most recently in a very kind email last week.

Now she is giving me the silent treatment and has not spoken to me for three days. What should I do? What is reasonable and customary in the area of kitchen clean up etc. in such a small company?

Thank you.

Founder, U-dirty-it-U-clean-it


Dear U-dirty-it-U-clean-it,

Imagine this: you’re going along day-to-day, doing something, assuming it’s OK. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re throwing your Starbucks cup into the trash every morning. You’ve done it for years.

At one point, somebody in your life—spouse, business partner, etc.—says, “You know, there’s a recycling bin right next to the trash.” And you nod, but don’t really notice, and keep throwing your cup in the trash.

The next week, the person says, “We’re all trying to be more conscientious about recycling, and the bin is right there.” And you think—“Oh, yeah, right, I should be recycling.”

So, the next couple of times you throw the cup in the recycling bin… but then you forget, or it just doesn’t seem that important; you go back to throwing the cup away. Then you get an email from this person, pointedly reminding you how important it is to the earth for you to recycle.

Now you’re just mad. Why is this person making such a big deal out of this? It’s not like you, personally, are destroying the planet. Gosh… get a life. And you act kind of cool toward this person for the next couple of days.

I offer this example partly because of the obvious similarities to your situation—but even more because it so neatly illustrates the problem with trying to change people’s behavior in midstream. Because there was no initial agreement in place between these two people about recycling, the “requester’s” repeated insistence on recycling feels unfair and judgmental—“Why is he/she suddenly telling me what to do, when I’ve been doing it this way all along?”

Your partner is operating under the expectation that it’s perfectly OK for the receptionist to clean up after her. You’re operating under the expectation that everyone is responsible for cleaning up after him or herself.

It sounds like you’re also operating under the assumption that your partner “should” share your expectation. However, imposing “shoulds” is a particularly ineffective way to get someone to change his or her behavior: I have an alternative suggestion.

  1. Sit down with your partner and apologize for imposing your expectations on her. (Bear with me here—you’re not letting go of your hope that she’ll change her behavior; you’re just erasing the slate.)
  2. Let her know that you’d like to start over again with this issue, and you want to first hear her point of view.
  3. REALLY LISTEN. (She may have a way of looking at this that’s completely legitimate to her. For instance, she may say the receptionist is perfectly comfortable cleaning up after her, and she may feel that it’s a poor use of her own time to clean up—that she could be spending that 5 minutes dealing with clients.)
  4. Make sure you’ve really understood her perspective (you can find out whether you’ve understood by summarizing what she’s said: if you’ve really gotten it, she’ll say some form of “yes, exactly”)
  5. Now, share your perspective—let her know why you feel it’s important that you and she clean up after yourselves. (You may feel, for instance, that it’s more important to create an egalitarian atmosphere than to save those 5 minutes.)
  6. Work to come to an agreement: you’re not trying to figure out who’s “right,” (or even, as in your letter, what is “customary”) you’re trying to figure out how to operate going forward in a way that works reasonably well for both of you.

Now, I know we’re talking about a small thing here, but I’ve found that this approach works equally well in any situation of mismatched expectations, large or small. If you sit down together and really listen to each other, not trying to prove “rightness,” but simply working to find common ground—you’re much more likely to come out with an agreement that works for all concerned.

Let us know how it goes—and thanks for writing to Office Politics.


Erika Andersen, Author