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During times of change, we humans can assign meaning to the most benign things…like a spork.

This cautionary tale of a spork was told to me years ago by a friend, and I’ve often shared it with leaders to reinforce the importance of symbols during times of change.

A company that shall remain nameless was going through a cost containment exercise. One of the methods they decided to use to reduce costs was to no longer provide forks AND spoons in the break room. 

Instead, they would provide sporks. 

Obviously, sporks alone wouldn’t shift the profit margins. The big cost-containment measure was a layoff, the first in the company’s history.

The week of the layoffs was the same week as the transition to sporks.

As my friend told it, for the “survivors,” every time they had to use a spork, they were reminded of that terrible week when their colleagues lost their jobs.

Want to eat your morning yogurt? Get poked on the tongue by a spork and remember the layoffs.

Have a salad for lunch? Fight to spear your lettuce with a spork and have your survivor’s guilt reinforced.

Those sporks became a symbol for an incredibly painful part of the company’s history, to the point where the sporks took on a bit of mythology.

After a year, they ditched the sporks and went back to spoons and forks.

As we navigate the psychological transitions we go through during times of change, we find and assign meaning to symbols and what we believe they represent. These symbols can be company logos to email addresses to our desk to our commute to the completely unexpected… sporks. 

As leaders, we can’t possibly prepare for every reaction to change, every symbol that’s created. But we can be thoughtful, and we can anticipate and plan the change from a place of empathy. We can help our teams navigate these transitions by over-communicating, listening, and helping carve a path forward.

Because it’s not really about the spork.

What’s a spork you encountered during change, and how did you lead through it?

(This post was inspired by the brilliant Tara McDonagh and her LinkedIn post about the stories people will make up in their heads when you don’t communicate during times of change.)


Got change? Let’s connect and discuss how we can bring the framework of Managing Transitions–and leading yourself to transitions–to your leaders and teams.

Photo by Perry Merrity II on Unsplash

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