HR & Management

Food enhances teamwork: “Eating together has a long tradition of being a social glue”

5 min read

10 December 2015

Eating regularly with your team allows for casual conversation in a comfortable environment, which studies have claimed will boost team performance.

Taking University of Cambridge professor Mark de Rond’s book, “There Is an I in Team,” as example, one starts to realise how teamwork can be a tricky thing, and how difficult it is to build solely within the confines of a group meeting or work session.

De Rond’s studies take him into the inner workings of different teams, including Cambridge’s famous rowing crew and a squad of combat doctors in an Afghanistan field hospital.

“I live with people literally, in extreme environments, to try to figure out how they can work together when the sh*t hits the fan,” he said. “It’s difficult, but I love to do it.

“The first lesson is that teams are not easy places to be. We tend to glamorise them: the Olympics, rowing, rugby. Teams are, however, often relatively dysfunctional. You need to be extremely careful not to prioritise harmony at the expense of performance. It’s a trap that lots of organisations, especially professional-services organisations, fall into. Harmony’s not a cause for performance, but a consequence of performance.”

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It’s all about psychological safety, it seems. According to De Rond, people feel safe in teams. They need to not self-censor for fear of being seen as silly or dumb. 

“The priority for managers is not necessarily to engage in social activity or to bring in consultants to get people to walk over hot coals; it’s the importance of building an environment that allows people to speak out without fear,” he said. “And the key to doing so is often very simple: provided people are capable, all you need to do is get them to care about something other than themselves. The problem: that’s very difficult to do.”

Well, a Cornell University study suggested that the perfect way to enhance team performance was for everyone to eat together – a suitable method to ensure team members “care about something other than themselves” as De Rond puts it. 

The university found that firefighter platoons who eat meals together have better group job performance compared with firefighter teams who dine on their own.

“Eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together,” said the study’s author, Kevin Kniffin, visiting assistant professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. “That intimacy spills back over into work. From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue. That seems to continue in today’s workplaces.”

Over the course of 15 months, Kniffin and his colleagues conducted interviews and surveys in more than 50 firehouses. The researchers asked 395 supervisors to rate on a scale of zero to ten the performance of their platoon compared to other fire companies in which they’ve served. The supervisors were also asked how often the platoon ate together in a typical four-day work week. 

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The platoons who ate together most often got higher marks for their team performance. Conversely, the platoons that did not eat together got lower performance ratings.

In interviews, firefighters said daily group meals were a central activity during their shifts. Some firefighters who worked a shift that started at 6pm often ate two dinners, one at home and a second at the firehouse. One firefighter said, in the company of his co-workers, “you don’t want to dis the wife” by turning down the food she prepared – implying that it was just as important to avoid disrespecting his co-workers.

“To me, that’s a good example of the importance of the group. It’s comparable to his family,” said Kniffin.

In fact, the researchers noted, firefighters expressed a certain embarrassment when asked about firehouses where they didn’t eat together. Of this fact, Kiffin said: “It was basically a signal that something deeper was wrong with the way the group worked.”