Workplace Issues

Attack of the Cookie-Lickers

Beware of those folks who do what Microsoft calls “Licking the Cookie”: engaging in behavior that limits the productivity of colleagues or the comp...
Kris DunnOctober 10, 2011

CFOs, regardless of whether they’re taking on oversight of human resources, increasingly are playing important roles in monitoring and shaping company culture. They’re probably finding out that organizational dysfunction runs deep in Corporate America. A large squad of corporate sociologists might be needed to unweave the primatelike behavior that really drives the cultures at many companies.

A case in point: Licking the Cookie.

It’s a phrase that has gained a firm foothold within Microsoft. It means, generally, “[s]taking your claim, real or otherwise, on a unit of property, thought, or idea within an organization in a manner where no one else can use the object or thought.”

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Explanation from a Fortune magazine article on Steve Balmer and Microsoft:

“Inside Microsoft it’s known as ‘licking the cookie.’ That’s when a group within the company, typically Windows, declares its intentions to work on a feature or a product, thereby preventing others within the company from taking it on. Often it makes sense for Windows to own a project, says a former Microsoft manager who still does consulting work for the company, but it also slows down development at a time when tech companies can scarcely afford to be piggy.

“Others talk about what a few former employees call the ‘made men’ – those who earned their bones during the 1990s when Microsoft was riding high and now can do no wrong, even as they bungle decision after decision. ‘You want to innovate in mobile?’ said a former top Microsoft engineer named James Whittaker before leaving to take a job at Google. ‘Then deal with the made men who run the relevant cartel.’ And if they don’t like you or your idea, your innovation goes nowhere.”

Nice! Of course, cookie-licking goes on all the time outside Microsoft as well. Even seemingly harmless people behaviors can help set the wrong tone for the organization:

Reserving conference rooms they don’t need. Got a meeting you’re thinking about next month? Instruct your minions to reserve the gold conference room. That thing fills up fast, mainly because HR loves to book recurring weekly onboarding sessions before they even know if they’re going to have new hires in the house. We’ll teach them by booking 10 meetings we’re not sure are going to happen.

Swooping in like vultures on the tech tools that departing team members leave at their cubicles. You’ve probably moved out of the herd’s way as it stampeded to see if it could mark a printer or external drive as its own the day after a termination. Good instincts. Even lions can be casualties of a zebra herd rumbling through a narrow pass.

Taking a piece of cake from the kitchen when you’re not sure you’ll have the time or appetite to eat. What? It was banana bread? Ah, then you were justified.

Allow people to act out in those ways, and you’re guaranteeing that more counterproductive cookie-licking ways will emerge as you promote talent through the ranks. Left unchecked, advanced cookie-licking could include the following organizational poison:

Managers saying key team members are unavailable for promotion or lateral moves. They’re just too important to move, the thinking goes. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t. But lick the cookie and take career advancement and opportunity from high potentials in this way, and you ensure one thing: talent will leave over time.

Managers moving in within a matrixed environment to engage associates on projects on which the managers may not need help. In such an environment, things move fast and can be confusing. Better to acquire talent for projects while you’ve got organizational support. You can figure out later whether you actually need that internal marketing manager.

Being territorial and saying or acting in ways that suggest you’re the only one who can do a certain job. You’re a martyr. We’ll always remember that only you could get it done. Sure, we missed a business opportunity while we waited on you to get to it, but your reputation is intact. You’re a rock star.

Knowledge hoarding so you can’t effectively be replaced. This is a cousin of the previous cookie-licking example. Damn the cost to the business or creating a “single point of failure,” right? Not sharing the knowledge with others means you can’t be downsized. If you can’t become irreplaceable by backing people off and taking all projects for yourself, you can always hoard everything related to the projects you’ve already been given.

Spending budget on things you don’t need so you get the same budget amount next year. It’s been less of a problem in the past couple of years since your budget gets cut anyway, but this a historical way of licking the cookie.

How do you deal with all of this? First, sweat the details on the front lines and don’t allow cookie-licking to occur when the stakes are low. Be a leader and ensure your team isn’t a part of the problem.

At a higher level, the best way to deal with serial cookie-lickers is to put the spotlight on them. Find a classy way to bring it to the peer group’s attention and put offenders on their heels. Just know that you have to be savvy enough politically to do it without hurting yourself.

Kris Dunn is chief human resources officer for Kinetix, a recruitment process outsourcing firm. In addition to writing a monthly column for CFO, Kris writes his award-winning blog The HR Capitalist and is a contributing editor at