Make The Coffee: Small Gestures Go A Long Way At Work

Small gestures—like holding the elevator door, saying good morning as you pass another in the hall, congratulating a coworker on his or her promotion—make a big difference.

So much of our career success depends on building positive, productive relationships with colleagues. The foundation for such relationships is built not in the big moments, but from the cumulative value of small ones. It’s just nice to be nice, and there are many easy, meaningful ways to foster goodwill and create connections.

I learned the importance of small actions in my very first job, as a dishwasher at an assisted living facility at the beginning of high school. As the lowest person in the hierarchy, I showed up at 6 a.m., and it was my job to prepare the kitchen. I stacked pots and cleaned garbage cans. I was also asked to have coffee ready before the full kitchen staff arrived at 7 a.m.

One morning, I forgot to make the coffee. In my haste to stack the pots and clean the cans, I had assumed it was just an extra little thing, not really necessary. The head cook, Emile, arrived tired and groggy, took one look at the cold, empty coffee pot, and turned his gaze to me. He told me plainly, “When I’m finished with this job at 3 p.m., I go to another job making pizza until 11 p.m. By the end of the day, I’m exhausted. The next morning, I’m exhausted. The only thing that gets me out of bed is knowing that coffee will be waiting for me here.”  He shook his head and moved on to make breakfast for 300 people.

I felt terrible. I had ruined Emile’s morning, maybe his entire day, with my inattention to one simple task. A task I had flippantly assumed was too small to make a difference.

Sure, making coffee actually was part of my job description back then, but the lesson stuck: small things matter. Every day. Entry-level workers sometimes express frustration that their contributions have minimal impact, but my experience showed me that every job matters.

It’s Not About Coffee

So, how can we apply this lesson in an office setting with coworkers?

Think about the coffee for a start. We all know that sinking feeling when you go for a caffeine fix before a meeting only to hear the wet gurgle of an empty carafe. It is annoying, and it signals that someone on the team poured him or herself a cup of coffee, put down an empty carafe and walked away without considering the next person.

Little things have a cascading effect on others. When someone leaves that symbolic empty coffee pot, their unspoken message is, “My time is more valuable than yours, and I’m too important for mundane tasks.”

It’s not just about coffee.

The same dynamic plays out in hundreds of little ways throughout our days. Who takes the meeting notes? Who sets up the conference room for a client meeting? Who straightens the room when the meeting’s over? Who organizes the monthly team birthday card? Who greets other people with eye contact and real attention and asks, “How’s your day?”

As a leader, I notice and celebrate the big moments in the office, but I also notice the mundane tasks and small gestures. And who steps up to do them.

Encouraging Simple Acts Of Thoughtfulness

Leaders need to model both the big and small behaviors they would like to see.

I try to communicate through my actions that there’s no job in our company too mundane or inconsequential that I won’t do it. I’m never too busy for the smallest task, and neither is anyone else.

Recently, my team moved into new office space. The conference room doors squeaked, like in a horror movie, and it drove me crazy. I bought a can of WD-40, and I walked from room to room, spraying the hinges, one door at a time. Sure, my primary motivation was to preserve sanity, but I’m also demonstrating that even the general manager isn’t above the smallest tasks. I now keep the can of oil on my desk to send a message: when you see a problem, just fix it.

We’re all moving fast and have calendars packed with meetings. It would be easy to focus only on our direct responsibilities. If everyone thought that way, however, the office would be a pretty miserable place, devoid of the simple niceties that help get us through the day.

Look for opportunities to perform small acts of kindness and consideration, and I guarantee you’ll develop stronger, more positive relationships and even feel better about yourself, too.

And if you don’t already know how to make a pot of coffee, I’d be happy to show you.

This article originally appeared on as part of the Forbes’ Career Challenge: Build Stronger Relationships In 15 Days.