Change Management Lessons From Spilled Coffee on the Train

change management lessons learned from spilled coffee on the train

It can happen to any of us and this morning it happened to me. I spilled coffee on a crowded train. The folks on the train reacted somewhat similar to the way they might if a colleague or teammate screwed up on a project or deliverable unintentionally. This is not the first time this has happened, and it is a metaphor for how folks react to unexpected mishaps. I have mentioned this in the past and thought it is a valuable lesson for all in business, especially my HR siblings.

The Six Types of Folks I Encountered

    • 1) The helpful if asked individual. After I attempted to clean up the spill without proper paper towels, I asked “does anyone have napkins or tissue?”She jumped up, handing me 2 napkins – not enough to clean the mess, but it was a start.
    • 2) The you screwed up and it bothers me individual. The man next to the napkin lady gave me a look of indignation. Had I caused a major catastrophe? It wasn’t his coffee all over my shoes and he wasn’t affected by it directly. I said to him, as he sneered at me, “It was a mistake, and I am cleaning it up.” He just kept looking at me like I had committed a felony on the train.
    • 3) The I will help as I see you’re in trouble individual. A nice lady came over with tissues, helped me clean coffee off my shoe, and put tissues on the floor. It was a nice gesture. She had no skin in the game, but she wanted to help someone because, well, they needed help. It was selfless and appreciated.
    • 4) The I will ignore the entire situation and hide behind my paper and cell phone individual(s). Pretty much the rest of the train fell into this category. A couple of folks looked to watch like voyeurs at a ball game or event.
    • 5) The appreciation from afar person. The woman behind me said after I cleaned up: “You know, most people would have left it and walked away, but you took responsibility. Thank you!”
    • 6) The I don’t care you spilled your coffee as long as you’re doing something about it person. The last guy on the train wanted a seat. After I told him there was a “coffee spill,” he stated “I don’t care. You’re cleaning it up and that’s good enough for me.”

Do People Have the Same Reactions in Business?

Think about the behaviors of people you work with when you make a business mistake or have an accident right in front of them. Do they help, hurt or ignore the situation? When it came to my situation on the train, overall, so much for team work, collaboration and caring. However, a few people did behave in a positive if not helpful way. There is a lesson here and a message too. It tells a lot about an individual’s character and their willingness to be selfless, or not…

I will be adding an important “what if” behavioral question to my candidate interviews at work in the future. “If someone spilled coffee next to you on the train, what would you do? I know my answer already…

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Mark Fogel

Mark S. Fogel is the Co-founder of Human Capital 3.0, a Human Capital and Organizational Leadership advisory firm servicing a broad range of industries with a focus on assisting businesses identify and grow its talent strategically. As a former CHRO for Leviton, Marcum, and Success Academy Charter Schools, Mark was the recipient of several national awards including SHRM’s Human Capital Leader of the Year and HR Executive Magazine’s Honor Role. Often Quoted in national media, Mark brings a refreshing point of view to every HR discussion. Follow him on the SHRM blog, and on Twitter @HC3.


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