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The Coffee Machine Syndrome

Updated: Sep 22, 2019

This is an interesting metaphor explained by Christian Hohmann, a Senior Manager and Consultant at Bearing Point - Paris, an Expert in Lean Management and transactional relations in the business world. According to him, any effort that a manager requests from a subordinate of his team, whether under the effect of permanence or even making concessions to obtain or achieve a goal, must allow negotiation.


Just like a coffee machine, if you put in a coin, you get a coffee. If we don't have the coin, we don't get the coffee. The machine here represents the manager and the collaborators to the other party and, therefore, the machine waits for a kind of gratification (the coin) to obtain the objective (the coffee). In other words, without bonus or payment, you don't get the result. According to Christian Hohmann's point of view, for every need or request of a manager, we have to contribute with something, which is requested or expected by the manager. The fact that we have to pay for anything, either with work or currency, in the case of the coffee machine, is sometimes not a healthy situation, since we enter into systems that can be perverse and abusive, on both sides. Any unusual or abnormal act is considered a problem.

Sometimes it is necessary to be more volatile, given the complexity of situations. This is where flexibility in management must come in and avoid working at the limit of what was considered as pre-defined. In the same way, it is necessary to make a complementary effort, since there are always unprecedented situations. Normally you don't feel the coffee machine syndrome if the work environment and relationships are good and positive. This syndrome occurs more in situations of tension between people in the same team, namely between the manager and his members,  without a good transactional relationship.


Whenever we are faced with situations of a company with a typical climate of coffee machine syndrome, we should be alert. We must be aware that this phenomenon may be linked to a problematic history and that, probably, the manager has not yet been able to build a healthier relationship with his subordinates, nor to what extent he has been able to understand the involvement of his staff in the company's objectives. This will constitute a resistance on the part of his team and a setback. It generates conflicts. It can call into question the modus operandi of a company.


For a manager, getting out of the coffee machine syndrome is very difficult, because it is usually already very deep-rooted in the company's routine, as is the metaphor. How can he motivate his team and change their behaviour? He must change his behaviour himself. It's not advisable to offer prizes rewards immediately or other types of prizes to reverse the situation overnight, because it can be interpreted as something very desperate and generate a lot of fierce competition and confusion, stress, or it can become a habit on the part of the employee. It is preferable to start by communicating and explaining to your team that there are things that are perhaps not very pleasant, but that we have to do them because they are part of the work, even if they are not clear and foreseen in the employee's job card. We should use a more pedagogical approach. In the case of adults, it is necessary to explain what is requested and why it is absolutely necessary.

Employees will only accomplish and adhere to the manager's request, if they understand what is being asked and the importance of their involvement, witch is a job for everyone. In the same way, the manager will promptly understand the point of view of each member and also who wants to be involved in this task out of the ordinary, who is more resistant, who adapts,  and finally make decisions about the future of his own collaboration and/or that of his employees. His authority and leadership position will depend very much on that attitude. His longevity in the position of manager will also depend on this.



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