My current client has cafeterias located on-campus, so I find myself staying in for lunch rather than going out. The convenience of the cafeterias is nice, and given my meeting schedule, it is often necessary to stay onsite. Most days I eat with other coaches, and it's contributed to a greater sense that we're a team and supportive of one another. But last week a post-meeting discussion ran long, and one of the coaches and I found ourselves in the cafeteria minutes before it closed and underwhelmed by our food options; we decided to go out, and it was wonderful. Getting outside of the office to a different environment puts a nice break in one's day and encourages open conversation. We got to walk around outside a little and choose from a wider menu, and I think we smiled and laughed more than usual.
What is it about sharing food that changes the tone of conversations? Eating while negotiating has been found to improve the outcome of negotiations, and it may be due to biological factors at work:
When the negotiators in my first two studies ate, they immediately increased their glucose levels. Research has shown that the consumption of glucose enhances complex brain activities, bolstering self-control and regulating prejudice and aggressive behaviors. Other research has shown that unconscious mimicking behaviors of others leads to increased pro-social behaviors; when individuals eat together they enact the same movements. This unconscious mimicking of each other may induce positive feelings towards both the other party and the matter under discussion.
I like to bring food for my teams periodically to encourage those positive feelings towards each other, and eating together does seem to encourage a safe environment for sharing stories and building camaraderie. It can be argued that providing lunch helps keep employees working, but I see greater benefits in increasing employee morale. One of my teams decided to work through lunch on Friday in preparation for their project going live that night, so I took their orders and arranged for the food delivery even though I had a prior lunch commitment and would not be able to join them; they were surprised to have someone outside of their team make sure they were provided for like that, and yet it was such a simple thing to do.
Senior leaders can take advantage of the power of food through skip-level lunches, which have been found to not only increase affinity for the leader but also increase confidence in the company or department.