“The bacon war” – what seems trivial could be titanic

By Rachael Robertson | Apr 03, 12 08:01 AM

Leadership requires empathy and judgement, especially when it’s time to address workplace behaviour and how to cook the bacon.

Take an eclectic mix of people from vastly different backgrounds and throw them together in cramped, artificially lit conditions for 38 hours a week. Then add some tight deadlines and a few meetings and you will have the average workplace.  Living and working on station in Antarctica is somewhat different to the above workplace – yes, we have a lot of diversity, it’s still cramped and yes it’s artificially lit but the big difference is that we live together around the clock, 365 days of the year.  There is little chance to step out for fresh air and no chance to debrief at home

So any little annoying and irritating habits of others can be quickly magnified and overblown and can take on hugely exaggerated proportions.  This was the environment that fostered and nourished “the Bacon War”.

We were 18 strangers when we met and as you would expect, our backgrounds ranged widely. From roles such as scientists, chefs, doctors and diesel mechanics, we had introverts to extroverts and everything in between. We had Dads, singles, goths; men and women, boomers and Gen Y’s, active to somewhat inert. Yet, despite all this, we had to quickly gel as a team because our lives would depend on it.

I was blissfully unaware of the war over bacon until a staff member came to me one day to tell me “we need to have a meeting to decide how to cook the bacon on Monday morning when the Chef has the morning off”. Really? Are you serious? “Yes, we must stop work now so we can sort this out”.

“I don’t understand… what’s the problem?” I asked.  “Well, it’s like this”, my staff member replied, “as you would already know” (I didn’t) “the plumbers like their bacon soft and the diesel mechanics like it crispy. On Mondays when the chef is not working (and no one argues with a chef) either the diesos or the plumbers don’t get a good breakfast. We must have a meeting to decide how to cook the bacon”. OK, I thought, so you want me to stop a $20 million research program to discuss bacon ...

Now, how you prefer to have your bacon cooked is, without doubt, a first-world issue and while it wouldn’t affect the safety of the team, it would certainly affect our productivity and delivery of our works program if left to fester.

Our role as leaders is not to sort out every little spat between team members. We do however, have a responsibility to use judgement and understand what are small, interpersonal differences that must be tolerated, and what are behaviours that are symptoms of a deeper issue.

A recent survey of 17,000 people by professional networking site LinkedIn found the most annoying habit for most people (78% of respondents) was people not taking responsibility for their actions. In Australia, this was followed closely by common areas being left messy and people arriving late for meetings.

On the surface these all appear to be simple, insignificant things. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find they are usually signs of a bigger cultural issue around teamwork and respect. They will almost certainly affect productivity when team members become focused on these issues, which then become time consuming and distracting.

So how can you manage your bacon wars?

1) Don’t let it build up – as soon as you’re aware there is an issue, deal with it. In Antarctica I made a public declaration that as we were all on a roster to cook the bacon, each person could cook the bacon the way they wanted to. It was emphatic and decisive and stopped any further discussion about the bacon. In other situations you might need to get a consensus by discussing the issues and solutions together in more detail. Whatever you decide; an emphatic decision versus a discussion about options and alternatives; you need to do it promptly.

2) Toolbox talks – every workplace has a bacon war, but identifying them can be tricky. Open up the discussion. Informal, regular, short meetings to discuss the progress of key projects and team outputs should include a quick opportunity to raise any bacon wars in a professional manner.

3) Deal with only facts: it’s the behaviour, not the person that you are trying to change. The behaviour, or habit, may be annoying – but (usually) the person is not.

4) Ask around – what proportion of the workplace is being affected and how? Leaders can’t get involved in every workplace issue, and that’s not your role. But the judgement to know what is a behavioural issue that needs to be addressed; and what is a simple human foible or idiosyncrasy and should be accepted, is the real test of leadership.

Empathy, judgement and immediate action are the keys and true leadership comes from knowing when and how to intervene in these small issues and when to leave it alone.


Rachael is a Premium member of Business Chicks, request her online business card and connect with her here.

www.rachaelrobertson.com.au www.o2speakers.com

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