When I was a little boy, our family gathered around the black-and-white TV set on Sunday nights in Southern California to watch The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan hosted a variety program that exposed American audiences to dozens of stars, novelty acts, and bands over the years.

One particular act stands out in my mind. A vaudeville performer came out on stage where there were at least a sixty 5′ tall dowels in stands. This gentleman – with a lovely assistant – had 3 minutes to SPIN PLATES on the end of these dowels. ON NATIONAL TELEVISION. Watching this guy, I was convinced that I, too, could be a big star! (That never quite worked out for me.)

You’re “Spinning Plates” in the Workplace

Every one of us – from senior leaders to front line staff – spin plates at work. Our plates represent key goals and tasks we’ve been charged with. Our plates might also include activities like teamwork, good corporate citizenship, office politics, putting up with stupid policies and procedures, etc. Positive things and not-so-positive things.

With the global recession, staffing has become leaner in many organizations. Running lean means all staff spin even more plates than in the past.

We spend a great deal of time at work trying to keep all these plates spinning. It’s no wonder many people leave work at the end of their day or shift exhausted.

Which Plates DESERVE Your Attention?

Every player in an organization needs to proactively evaluate whether or not they are spinning plates that no longer serve their company, their customers, and their stakeholders. Often staff don’t even realize that they are investing valuable time on activities that do not actually provide value. They’re doing things because “they’ve always done it that way.”

How does one know which plates deserve the time, energy, and brain cells you’re expending?

Consider these key elements to assess which plates deserve your attention:

  • Do these activities align with your organization’s core purpose & values? Every organization needs to have a stated “reason for being,” a statement that describes why it exists, how it serves customers, etc. In addition, every organization needs to define HOW it will go about delivering on their “promise,” their reason for being. With these statements in place, they can be used as the foundation for assessing what activities deserve time, energy, and focus. If activities do not have a direct positive impact on the daily demonstration of organization’s core purpose and values, those activities may not deserve your attention.
  • Do these activities align with your organization’s defined strategies? With clearly defined strategies communicated and agreed to, one can evaluate the extent to which daily activities contribute to traction on those strategies. If activities do not demonstrate direct benefit to defined strategies, consider them for the “don’t do” pile.
  • Do these activities align with your personal purpose & values? With your personal purpose & values defined, you can assess the degree of alignment you have with the organization’s purpose and values. You can assess the degree of alignment with the organization’s strategies. If you find poor alignment, you may choose to remove yourself, at your earliest convenience, so you may find a more aligned workplace.

If these foundational pieces are NOT in place, EVERY ACTIVITY may seem beneficial. Do the analysis and invest in beneficial activities.

What is your experience with “spinning plates” in the workplace? Add your thoughts in the comments section below.

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S. Chris Edmonds

S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of The Culture Engine and six other books.
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Reader Interactions


  1. AvatarDane Findley says

    and here’s the thing: you can’t spin all the plates. I’ve noticed that people who try to spin all of the plates are, ultimately, the least effective.

    it’s not enough to be productive. you have to be productive and get away with it, meaning you have to be alert, happy and healthy while you’re being rockstar at work. the only way to do this is to be a relentless prioritizer.

    …thanks for an insightful post!