I was exhausted last night, after an amazing but busy week, so I was curled up in bed ready to watch Netflix when I realized that my two grown children were taking up the spots, kicking me off the service. (Funny aside: Netflix will tell you what your family members are watching when this happens. My son was viewing Always Sunny in Philadelphia and my daughter was on Star Wars-Rogue One). I was mildly irritated, but not too worried about it-I turned to the Wall Street Journal to catch up on the news I’d missed from yesterday.
I didn’t expect to see it in the WSJ but apparently Sean Spicer really wanted a mini-fridge in his office, and wasn’t willing to spend $80 and wait for Prime delivery. The story, as reported in the Journal, is that he sent someone to the tiny, cramped room where junior research employees are housed in a nearby office building, and asked them to give up their fridge instead-and they refused. That alone is a supreme example of poor relationship skills.
What happened next is the kicker-the article reports that he went back to their office after dark to steal the fridge and bring it back to his office. This is the stuff of legendary office lore-if this happened in any other organization, it would be epic: the senior VP who stole the mini fridge from the minions’ office. What isn’t clear from the article is that there are probably some very mundane details that preceded these juicy events. Here’s how I imagine this played out with Mr. Spicer, and with other leaders who have poor emotional intelligence:
Step 1: Leader says, “I need a mini fridge. I need one right now.”
Step 2: Someone in Leader’s circle (we’ll call her “Deputy”) says, “The Research Department bought one last year for the junior employees next door. Let me go get it. They can ask for another one later and someone will replace it.”
Step 3: Leader says, “Okay, go get it.”
Step 4: Deputy goes to see Junior Employees and asks for the mini fridge full of gas station burritos in their office, expecting them to say, “okay, of course, you can give it to Leader-he’s more important than us.”
Step 5: Junior employees unexpectedly revolt and say, “Hell no! He makes enough money to go out to lunch and unlike us, he has access to the White House Cafeteria. Let him get his own f*cking mini fridge.”
Step 6: Deputy goes back to Leader, fuming that Junior Employees refused to give up the mini fridge for their Leader, one they don’t personally own and that was provided to them by their employer.
Step 7: Leader gets pissed. Who do these Junior Employees think they are? They should know that his need for a mini fridge is primary here. They don’t own that mini fridge. They’re lucky to have a g*ddamn mini fridge in the first place!
Step 8: Leader is working late. He’s in a rage because his cold brew isn’t cold and he is working a 20-hour day while Junior Employees are at the bar.
Step 9: Leader bops on over to the Junior Employee office, takes the mini fridge, and moves it to his office.
Step 10: Junior Employees discover the heist, know they have no power to do anything about it except lie in wait until the right time to leak the story to the WSJ, Glassdoor-style.
Guess what? Your employees do this every day. They suffer thoughtless indignities and reminders of their lack of importance to your organization. Yes, the mini fridge is the company's, not theirs. But it makes a long day in a difficult job a little easier, so they feel ownership over it. And as hard as you work as a leader, taking action that makes clear you think you’re more important than your employees are is not a good look. Resources like technology, work flexibility, headcount, physical space, and, yes, mini fridges and coffee can become a lot bigger deal than you think they are, because the decisions we make around these things send messages to our employees, like whether they are important, and whether the work they do is valued. That goes double for when you take these resources away from someone and give them to someone else, much less yourself. When we’re not mindful of the message, we can end up with a much bigger story than we wanted, and the negative financial and brand impact goes a lot further than the cost of an $80 mini fridge.