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The Coffee Cup As a Management Tool

One of your best management tools may be a coffee cup. The simple act of taking someone to coffee gives you an opportunity to sit with them, listen, and learn. That kind of a conversation can be powerful employee motivation. It can head off conflict and violence. Just sharing a cup of coffee gives you a great chance to learn important information about yourself, your employees, your company, and even your competitors.

Coffee with Your Employees

Do you have regular meetings with each of your key employees, your direct reports? Are these weekly meeting frequently interrupted because both of you are so busy and someone always has a "crisis" that needs one or the other of you to deal with it? Do you ever feel you could get more done if you just had a half hour without interruptions? Get out of your office and take the other person out for a cup of coffee.

One place I worked had a coffee shop in the ground floor of the building and another across the street.

There was also a breakfast restaurant half a block away where you could get coffee. One supervisor I know, however, would just sneak off to the employee lunch room. He would "buy" a cup of coffee for the person he was meeting with and they would sit at one of the tables and talk. No phones, no cell phones, and they ignored the pagers.  

Coffee Isn't Always Coffee

"Grabbing a cup off coffee together" doesn't have to only mean coffee. If you or the person with whom you are meeting doesn't care for coffee, or just wants a break from it, there are plenty of alternatives. Tea and cocoa are a couple of other alternatives that come to mind. In fact, in many countries, tea may be the preferred alternative. However, it doesn't have to stop there. The whole point is to get away from the distractions for a little while, so the beverage really doesn't matter. Bottled water may suit. Sports drinks, fruit juices, and sodas are all acceptable. It only needs to be something relatively inexpensive that is readily available, can be served quickly, and that you can linger over while you talk.

Coffee Has No Alcohol

The one thing you want to avoid is anything alcoholic. Regardless of the time of day, going out for a "beer" or "having a glass of wine" makes it more of a social event than a business meeting. Besides, you don't want either of you to be impaired, and alcohol can do that. Certainly, there can be the temptation to get the other person to relax a little so they will be more open with you, but using alcohol to do so is ethical and underhanded. Being open and honest with them will produce the same results without the potential embarrassment.

Listen. Really Listen.

Remember the reason you are having this chat in the coffee shop instead of your office is to learn something from the other person. It might be that you want them to get all the way through the trouble report without an interruption. It could be that you want to hear their ideas for the new product or how to fix the old one. It can be just as important to check their temperature as to check the coffee's and to find out if they are overstressed and why. The key element in all of these is you need to keep your mouth shut and your ears open.

Listening, of course, is more than just letting the other person speak. You have to focus your undivided attention on what they are saying. Remember you left the office to get away from the distractions there, so don't distract yourself here by letting your mind wander. Actively listening also means occasionally repeating a statement of theirs back to them to show you are listening and to encourage them to keep talking. The Japanese even have a word for this, aizuchi.

Manage This Issue

  • A coffee break gives you a chance to get away from the distractions and interruptions.
  • Coffee, tea, soda, or water. The beverage doesn't matter.
  • Pick a beverage that is inexpensive and quick, but that you can linger over.
  • Cell phone and pagers should be turned off or at least ignored.
  • Alcohol is out.
  • Actively listen to the other person. That's the purpose for this getaway.

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