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December 14, 2017

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How Eating and Organizational Success are Related

44 percent of employees feel there is no family-feeling in their organization.

A few months ago, I facilitated a senior management retreat for one of my clients. Managers flew in from around the country the night before to assemble at the owner's house for a homemade Italian dinner cooked by one of the senior executives. It had become an annual tradition. She cooked many of her family's cherished recipes. Several other managers brought food to the gathering as well. It was a warm, jovial event more reminiscent of a family holiday than a serious company meeting.

This company celebrates with food on a daily basis. There is candy, cookies, and other goodies provided at every company meeting at all levels of the organization. On Fridays the owner of the company treats the corporate office staff to sushi at a local restaurant. Visitors to their facilities around the country are taken to special restaurants that serve traditional local foods. (At the southern restaurant I went to when visiting one facility, the owner even sang gospel after dessert.) Employees often talk about food and share recipes in the hallways. The owner of the company bought a restaurant and holds many company meetings there. Food has become a major part of the corporate culture. Did I mention that the company is highly profitable and employees are very proud to work there?

I recently consulted to another organization where things are very different. Employees typically eat alone at their desks. Senior management and employees never eat together. When employees visit local restaurants at lunchtime they are careful to make certain they don't sit within earshot of others from their company. They cancelled the annual holiday party because employees said they would prefer a cash bonus instead.

THE PROBLEM

The family feeling has been lost from most companies today. Competitive pressures, demands from stockholders, and the struggling economy have all made organizations less paternalistic, less employee-friendly, and to put it simply, less fun. In response, employees have become psychologically distant from their organizations. As a result, they are less committed and more apt to leave.

Organizations have been struggling to regain employee loyalty. For example, some have had success by providing more training and growth opportunities for employees. Others have improved the skills of their managers to strengthen the bonds between employees and their supervisors. Still others have focused on developing internal publicity campaigns to brand their organizations to their employees. Others keep their talented employees in the fold by promoting their core values and giving back to the community.

It may seem very simple, but what do families do to strengthen their bonds? They get together and eat. Eating together provides a way for everyone in the family to share, connect, and bond.

  • Sociologists report that in families that regularly eat together, their children perform better in school.

  • Physicians report that the children of families that eat together are less depressed and less likely to drink alcohol, smoke, or use marijuana.

  • Psychologists report that children are better adjusted socially and emotionally when they eat with their families on a regular basis.

  • Anthropologists have found that food is how social systems solidify group membership and share their belief systems. They also have found that the rituals surrounding eating binds people to their shared identity through powerful links between food and memory.

  • My fellow organizational psychologists talk about how rituals such as eating at company gatherings is a way that employees develop a shared meaning of their complex reality at work and become more comfortable together.

Please indulge me and take this short assessment about how food is handled in your organization.

To what extent do you agree with the following statements?

  • Our workgroup frequently eats lunch together.

  • The senior most executives eat with the rank and file (e.g., in the cafeteria or lunch room).

  • Birthdays and major holidays are celebrated at work with cake or other food.

  • Food is brought in to most of our company meetings.

  • It is common to see employees from different departments eating lunch together.

  • We celebrate company successes with food.

  • It is common to see employees from different levels of the organization eating lunch together.

  • Potluck lunches or dinners are common in our company.

I have consistently observed that employees in healthy companies often eat together, talk about food, and even cook for each other. I would guess that if you agreed with most of the statements above, most probably it is fun to work in your organization, you feel close to many employees in your organization, and there is a strong family-feeling in your organization.

WHAT TO DO

  1. Serve Food at Company Meetings.

    Make sure that food is served at all company meetings. Make it food that people will enjoy eating. Set aside time for employees to eat and socialize rather than eat while they are listening to a presenter.

  2. Provide Communal Spaces for Employees to Eat Together.

    If you don't have a lunchroom, turn an office or some other communal space into a comfortable environment where people can sit, chat, and eat. Make it an enticing place to gather.

  3. Celebrate With Food.

    Celebrate company successes (e.g., landing a new customer, a big sale, or a profitable quarter) and personal occasions (such as anniversaries and birthdays) with food.

  4. Make Food Fun in Your Organization.

    Don't serve the same boring bagels or sandwiches at every meeting. Introduce variety. Get people involved in sharing their cooking abilities and feeding others. Conduct special food-related events such as a contest for the best chili, potato salad, curry dish, or dessert. Periodic potluck lunches or dinners are another excellent way to get people involved and sharing. Offer to pay the cooks for their grocery bills.

  5. Develop Annual Food Eating Rituals.

    For example, serve apple pie in the Fall, hold a clambake during the summer, serve hot cider on the first day of winter, and hold your annual holiday party at the most interesting restaurant in town. Make these annual events that people can look forward to attending.

CONCLUSION

Certainly, getting employees to eat together more often is not the sole antidote for organizational problems. However, experts agree that the practice of eating together can have many positive psychological benefits. And if you're not convinced, just like taking a spoonful of your mother's chicken soup, it can't hurt.

- Bruce L. Katcher

Bruce Katcher, PhD is President of Discovery Surveys, Inc. His firm conducts customized employee opinion and customer satisfaction surveys. Learn more at www.DiscoverySurveys.com. He can be reached at BKatcher@DiscoverySurveys.com or 888-784-4367.