Your mom doesn't work here, so clean up after yourself

Published Sept. 15, 2016

A co-worker and I were grousing about dirty dishes left in the office sink, and this proverb came to mind: A courtyard common to all will be swept by none.

No philosophy degree is needed to understand that. Look at litter along the streets. Dog poop in the park. Paper towels on the restroom floor.

Not my problem. Not my job. I didn't put it there. Why doesn't somebody else take care of that?

It turns out that there's an economic theory called "the tragedy of the commons." Basically, it says that we act in our own self-interest, exploiting shared resources to our own ends.

Take one small step for mankind to see the theory in action, particularly in workplaces. No matter how many people use a shared space, the "tragedy" can appear when there isn't a precise duty — or constant regimen — for maintaining common areas.

It can happen wherever some co-workers consider themselves too busy or too high in the hierachy to wash dishes or toss a towel they didn't drop. It can happen when office morale is so bad that it's a handy nose thumb. And not to put too fine a point on it, it can happen because some people are self-centered slobs.

Do a web search for something like "co-workers who don't clean up" and you'll be stunned at how much you find. And most solutions conclude that "Your mother doesn't work here" or "Please clean up after yourself" signs taped to the microwave don't cure the problem.

Some people won't think it applies to them. Apparently, emails and even meetings don't fix the problem either. So here's a proposal:

Do the proverbial sweeping. Wash someone else's dishes. Pull the weed that's growing out of the sidewalk in front of the building. Retape the poster that fell to the floor.

Not fair, you say? No, but it may reap long-term benefits if and when others watch you doing it. With luck and maybe a dose of guilt, others may follow your lead and take a turn with the dish soap.

Or you can try this idea gleaned from internet comments: Post pictures of eyes in the problem areas. Sounds creepy. But the idea of being watched, even by paper eyes, apparently encourages people to behave better.

What if you've tried to model good-of-the-whole behavior and it didn't catch on?

Don't be a martyr. Decide which bothers you more — the mess or cleaning it up — and act in your own self-interest, whatever you determine it to be.

But note this: I've seen the power of example when I've interviewed CEOs or other top managers in their workplaces. There's a detectable workplace culture when, on a walk down the hall, the big boss bends over and picks up a scrap of paper versus the one who walks over it or points it out to an assistant.