Are you an unwitting ‘Coffee Machine Saboteur’?

I remember sitting outside a nice little coffee shop a while ago, amusing myself by doing a bit of people watching when very quickly I became engrossed in a conversation two women sitting quite near to me were having about a friend of theirs. It was actually quite difficult to ignore as they were talking quite loudly. They were talking about how their ‘friend’, was really annoying them by being too emotional and was attention seeking all the time. They were both really getting stuck into her, saying her behaviour was pathetic and she just needed to pull herself together. That was until the lady in question actually turned up!


At this point they completely changed and they couldn’t have been nicer, fawning over her and asking her if she was OK. I actually thought I may have misheard the name of the person they were initially talking about; that was until she went inside to order her coffee. As soon as she was out of sight the two women looked at each other, smiled and rolled their eyes.


Watching this all unfold in front of me reminded me of a meeting I’d had with a client just the week before.


Our client, let’s call them Peter, had been talking to me about some changes he was trying to implement within his team, and the struggles he’d been having with trying to get a particular person to ‘buy-in’ to what Peter was trying to achieve. Initially Peter was asking me for some advice about strategies he could employ to get this particular person to engage, but over the course of our conversation Peter admitted that on a few occasions he had shared his frustrations with a couple of the other members of the team. What quickly became apparent though was the one person Peter wasn’t sharing his frustrations with was the one person that he actually needed too – the individual themselves. Instead Peter was, probably quite unconsciously, doing the same thing as the two ladies in the coffee shop and talking about someone behind their back. He even told us that to this particular person’s face he did everything he could to appease them, thinking it was the right and ‘professional’ thing to do, to keep his true feelings to himself (only to let them out to other people later).


Peter had become what we call a ‘Coffee Machine Saboteur’!  Basically a person who likes to talk and gossip about other people behind their back.  In my experience these illicit conversations never normally complement the work performance, appearance or behaviour of the person they are talking about, but usually the exact opposite. I haven’t yet worked in, or for, an organisation that didn’t employ at least a handful of these people.


Go back to our two ladies at the coffee shop for a moment, just like Peter they were also engaging in a bit of ‘Coffee Machine Saboteur’ behaviour.  We’d put money on the lady who they were talking about had an idea they were ‘bitching’ about her behind her back, but was too scared to say anything, or worse still if she didn’t know, whatever she was doing to upset and annoy her ‘friends’ she was likely to keep on doing it.


When I asked Peter if the person that he was frustrated with knew how he felt, he admitted that it was highly unlikely. Peter soon realised he needed to stop talking to other people about his frustrations and tackle the issue head on with the individual, by telling them about the impact they were having on him and then spend some time really understanding why they were reacting that way and what support they needed to be able to accept the changes.


It’s all too easy to ignore a ‘Coffee Machine Saboteur’ or even worse become one yourself, as Peter found out.  But if you allow them to continue they will quite literally sabotage any hope you have of building a cohesive and high performing team, as they help to create cliques, pitching people against one another, thereby creating an environment of mistrust. The only thing to do is have the courage to tell them, and only them, the impact they are having and then get fascinated as to why they might be acting that way.  Take the time to understand what’s going on for them instead of just getting frustrated.


Til next time



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