When Life Gives You Cold Coffee

On a recent Dunkin’ Donuts coffee run, I was waiting somewhat patiently for my daily cup of coffee (large, decaf, triple milk, no sugar) when a valuable leadership lesson presented itself right there in the drive-through lane.

For years, a gentleman by the name of Nick ran this local store; he was exceptional. Nick was friendly, feisty, always wore a smile, full of energy, and chatted with each customer just enough to make you feel like the only person in line, but never so much that it slowed the process. His team hustled. They spoke to each person in the drive-through. They had pep in their step.

Then Nick left. Life as I knew it came to a grinding halt. Well at least in the drive-through line at Dunkin’ Donuts. Literally, a grinding halt. Seriously, how long can it take to get a cup of decaf? 17 minutes from start to finish, I timed it.

Mental Hijack

Employees stopped saying hello. No one seemed happy to be there. Service slowed down to the point of being painful. The employees working the window didn’t even speak when you approached and offered payment. Orders were wrong. It was miserable. I stopped going because it took too long and the experience was not a pleasant way to start my day.

But the other day, I wanted a coffee for a trip I was about to make, so I stopped. After a lengthy wait, I was greeted by an expressionless face that handed my coffee without so much as a word. The coffee was cold, stone cold. I lifted the lid, took a sip and said, “I don’t have time to wait for another coffee to be made, but you should know that the coffee is stone cold.” His response?

“Oh. Well… I didn’t make it.”

Really? Really? If you’ve read previous posts, you know I’m a fan of intentionally choosing how to tell your story, but I found myself in a complete mental hijack with my internal narrative going something like this…

  • “I didn’t say YOU made it; I said it was cold.”
  • “So nice to know you give a (BLEEP) about your job/customer/product/etc.”
  • “Seriously? You’re not even going to offer me a fresh cup?”
  • “Awwe.. thank you for the apology that means a lot to me!”
  • “Who lets you work here?”
  • “For the love of all that is Holy, I want Nick back!”

I will never stop saying it – Feedback is a Gift!

But because I believe in choosing your story, and having plenty of practice in giving feedback, this poor unsuspecting kid got a quick lesson in blame vs. responsibility. So, I said, “I’m not blaming you for the coffee being cold. I know you aren’t making it, you’re here at the window. So, instead of assuming that I’m blaming you and you are trying to avoid being at fault, how about you take some ownership in fixing this, even though you didn’t create it?” When life gives you cold coffee, give it unsolicited leadership advice.

The poor kid didn’t know what to do with me. At this point, some other employee joined us at the window and asked if there was something wrong. Nope. Just the service. I was offering an option to this young man and if he understands what I’m suggesting, it might help him out a bit, not only here, but in life. Feel free to discuss it with each other. For now, I have a flight to catch.”

Blame Shifting vs. Ownership

Our team has been discussing this concept quite a bit as we look to update our 6-month intensive leadership program for 2018. We’ve been trying to find a way to articulate the nuance between accountability and responsibility even more clearly. In this case, he was not responsible for the cold coffee problem, but since I brought it to his attention, I was hoping he would make himself accountable for fixing it. (But alas, he did not.) If I had to predict, barring some drastic intervention, this kid is not going far. Nick, however, went far. Too far for my liking, but I’m happy for his success while I mourn the loss of him at the local level (I know, first world problems!)

What are your thoughts on this topic of blame shifting vs. ownership? How would you define the difference between accountable and responsible? What examples can you share that highlight the difference?

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