Food is a Great Foundation to Build a Team

It might seem a little odd to suggest, but sharing a meal together each day really helps to build a strong and high performing team. Some people might dismiss this as nonsense or an expensive exercise, however it is certainly worthwhile, especially for new teams.

Whenever I am running a project, I always like to invite my project team to go out for lunch each day. I must confess, this is partly because I like trying different foods, but also because it is a very effective way of strengthening my team.

Having lunch outside is a fantastic way to get people out of the office environment each day. It helps to refresh the mind and creates a relaxed environment where people (often the quieter personalities) become more comfortable to mix with the team and share what’s on their mind.

What I find is that there is something inherently natural and enjoyable about eating together as a group. Coming together for food is an age old human tradition that spans across time, cultural and age boundaries. Inevitably you will start understanding each other’s interests and hobbies, share battle stories about day to day challenges, empathise about each other’s life situations and enjoy each other’s humour.

The friendship that develops over time promotes honesty and respect for each other. People are more likely to share their concerns without fear of ridicule and openly contribute to solving problems. Important but not yet urgent issues are surfaced and discussed which help the team to stay on top of circumstances. If a person becomes stuck on a problem, they are more inclined to openly seek help and offer their time to assist others when needed.

Image: Fred (right) hanging out with his fellow team mates. 

This ultimately fosters a genuine sense of being part of a team where everyone is working together with mutual support to achieve a common goal. In a mixed environment where the delivery team is made up of people from different companies, this helps to create a ‘one team’ culture, rather than reinforcing divisions along commercial lines. Work is hard enough, but it becomes even harder if you are isolated or don’t like the people around you.

All teams must go through the forming-storming-norming-performing phases of team development (Tuckman Model) so getting through the early stages as quickly as possible is key to having a high performing team. This is particularly important for a consultancy like DiUS where our teams need to spin up (i.e form) and spin down (i.e disband) when moving between clients and projects.

An important dividend from building stronger bonds is the growth of relationship capital with people on the team. Relationship capital is similar to having credit in a bank account that you can draw down on a rainy day.

Difficult conversations or decisions are hard by nature, because giving someone unpalatable but necessary feedback places a strain on the relationship. A successful outcome depends on how much relationship capital is available with the person or people involved.

If little or no effort was placed to build up the relationship, it is highly likely that the conversation or decision will be poorly received. Relationship damage (i.e negative balance) is difficult to repair and can lead to team dysfunctions or personal resentment that can carry onto the next project.

At this stage some people may ask, would going out as a team for coffee or Friday night drinks work as well in building up this capital?

The answer is yes, however I highly prefer lunch. Lunch gives you a solid amount of time each day to have good conversations with other people. A typical coffee break might be for only ten or fifteen minutes which in my view is too short to have a proper conversation.

Friday night drinks is an alternative, however it is only once a week and heavily depends on the people in the team coming along. Some people may not be able to attend due to family commitments or other social engagements after hours. Some people may not drink due to health, cultural or other reasons. All of these possibilities typically make it harder to bring the entire team together than lunch.

There is no one size fits all method to build a strong team, however I want to share this particular way because it has worked really well as a foundation for me.

The key is the word ‘foundation’ because bonding over lunch is not a silver bullet as there are other important ingredients to build a strong and high performing team. These are, for example, trusting people by providing them with autonomy, sharing opportunities and crucial information in a transparent and timely manner, recognising the good work of team members, promoting sustainable ways of working, and fostering a continuous improvement mindset.

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