Want Career Success? Then Stay Out Of the ‘Buffet Line’

What does it mean to get stuck in "the buffet line"? Rita Mitchell talks business ethics and career advancement with an example from the classroom

buffet line
(Image: iStock.com/GoodLifeStudio)

Here is another life changing concept from the great Coach Mitchell. As an elementary-middle school physical education teacher and coach, my husband, over the course of his career, had the privilege of teaching thousands of children. Not only did he teach and coach students, but as you can imagine he also taught life lessons. One of the great life lessons that resonated with me was the concept of “staying out of the buffet line.”

Being “in the buffet line” is likening an individual displaying “inappropriate behavior” with a food item in a restaurant buffet. The concept originated when Coach Mitchell started his teaching career over 40 years ago. He would occasionally have groups of students misbehave in his classroom. Of course, as a teacher managing a classroom of 30 to 60 students, it was very difficult to identify every disruptive child. However, he could easily identify the ringleader and a few others who were in the middle of stirring things up. In those cases, the singled-out child would always complain that “he was not the only one misbehaving, AND it was unfair to be punished when everyone else was getting a pass.” Coach decided to take this opportunity to teach the children to stand up to the peer pressure and to learn to choose independently of others. Thus, the concept of “staying out of the buffet line” was born.

At the very next group incident, Coach Mitchell picked the ringleader out of the group for individual punishment. The child, of course, complained again of how unfair it was to be the only one selected, when there were so many others also doing the same thing. Coach Mitchell asked the child in front of the entire class if he had ever eaten in a restaurant that had a buffet. The child immediately responded “OH YEAH!!!!!” Coach Mitchell then began to explain to the child that he, the student, was now a food item on the buffet line. As someone misbehaving in class, he was now on the menu. Coach Mitchell was now in the buffet line, ready to fill his plate, which meant that Coach could choose to pick one food item, two food items, or everything on the buffet. He could also decide to have one serving or he could decide to go back for seconds. Hey, it’s a buffet…OH YEAH!!! His plate, his choice; a little, or a lot. There was dead silence. Coach Mitchell was able to get his point across to the children; their responsibility was to do their best, to learn, and to work very hard to stay out of the buffet, vis-à-vis out of trouble. This concept resonated instantly with the children. They changed their behavior, because the message was simple, understood, and unchallengeable.

Now, let me tell you how “staying out of the buffet line” resonates with me.

Working in a corporate environment gives each person the opportunity to work in “gray space.” What does operating in “gray space” mean? It means that you, as an individual, will have plenty of opportunities to make questionable decisions and/or choose to advance your career in a not so straight and narrow fashion. The pressure of obtaining success, and how you choose to execute your strategies of advancement can lead you straight to the buffet line, if you are not careful and wise. You can be singled out with consequences, regardless of whether others are doing it too.

Don’t be confused—there will be a multitude of opportunities to make wrong and unethical decisions. There will also be plenty of opportunities to categorize some of these decisions as not really being wrong or unethical, but being very, very close to the line or “gray space.” I call those decisions the big, almost bad, but not really that bad options.

Newsflash: There is no such thing as almost, and it will land you in the buffet line. If you land there, your boss, for all practical purposes, is now Coach Mitchell, deciding how to fill his plate; he can choose you as a food item, or he can pass you up. His plate, his choice!!

Here are my corporate takeaways:

  1. You must maintain your own moral and ethical compass and not succumb to peer pressure. We all know the difference between right and wrong; it is inherent and in each one of us. So, if you hear your inner voice telling you that the decision that you are about to make is questionable, stop, listen, and weigh the decision again. Make sure it is the right thing to do.
  2. There is no such thing as a “little” wrong thing. Doing the wrong thing is like a cancer in the body. It grows and consumes what is healthy and good—definitely an item in the buffet line.
  3. Politics are not enough to win. Don’t base your success on who likes you and how much perceived power they have; it works, until it does not. Your performance, integrity, and metrics of success should stand alone, and will help you to stay out of the buffet line, when politics or people change.

Right is right and wrong is wrong. Choosing to operate in the “gray space” gives your boss the power to decide your consequences. Honesty, hard work, integrity, and a determination to succeed will give you the very best chance to avoid becoming an item in the buffet line.