Kitchen Sink Game Theory

Every company has people who avoid responsibility. Just look at the kitchen sink. There are probably cups in there that should be in the washer. Some people think that their one cup won’t bother anyone. But, then everyone follows suit and someone gets stuck with the responsibility of doing the dishes.

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Game Theory is Alive and Well in the Kitchen

It’s a modified version of the prisoner’s dilemma. For those not familiar with this experiment, let me explain by using a classic example.

Two criminals are caught and brought into a police station, where they are separated for questioning. The criminals are given two choices; rat out their accomplice, or remain silent.

  • If both criminals work together and remain silent, they each get one year in jail.
  • If criminal A rats out criminal B, and criminal B remains silent, criminal B goes to jail for 5 years and criminal A gets off free.
  • If both criminals rat each other out, they both go to jail for 3 years.

Kitchen Sink Game Theory is as Follows

Employee A and employee B are separated by time and must decide whether to leave dishes in the sink or in the washer. Their decisions, together, decide who has to put in the most effort to keeping the sink clean.

  • If both employees put their dishes in the washer, it’s easy and you have a clean sink for all to enjoy.
  • If employee A leaves dishes in the sink, and employee B does not, you have a messy sink and employee B is stuck doing the dishes.
  • If both employees leave their dishes in the sink, you have a messy sink.

What’s worse is that if employees see they’re the only ones putting dishes in the sink, they’ll stop, because they’re sick of being the sucker.

Keeping a Clean Sink

Using the stick won’t work. Fear is temporary, and the behavior you want to eliminate reappears as soon as people are left unobserved. Instead, you have to build a culture of working together. This is community building. And the kitchen sink can be a good indicator of the health of your group.

As a leader, you can;
  • Lead by example. Put your dishes in the washer. Every now and then put all the dishes in the washer.
  • Give positive feedback to those who take responsibility for their own dishes.
  • Communicate your desired behavior through different mediums. Sometimes very responsible people simply aren’t aware of the cultural norms you’re trying to achieve. Educate them.
  • Measure behavior and make results visible. It’s amazing how much something changes as soon as it is measured.

Of course, you could always do what my friend’s firms did, eliminate glass altogether and making people use styrofoam cups and paper plates.

Feel free to respond with your kitchen sink stories.

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