You might ask what FOOD has to do with being an effective manager and leader?  Consider the following scenario contained in my workshop for managers:

In the past six months you have made some difficult management decisions clearly unpopular among many of your staff. You fully discussed these issues with all your subordinates – both individually and as a group – before making the final decisions and carefully considered their input. Now the atmosphere in your unit has cooled and several of your subordinates seem determined to avoid unnecessary interaction with you. You are concerned this situation, if it continues, might undermine teamwork, unit morale and performance. What to do?

More than a third of the suggestions offered by workshop participants confronting this scenario often involve food in some way:  a pizza party; cake and ice cream; a unit lunch at a favorite haunt; a Mexican food feast; bowling, beer and burgers; a pot-luck gathering; a taco Friday; etc.

Humans enjoy eating and must eat to nourish themselves and survive.  But as Robin Fox points out, eating…..

“is also a profoundly social urge. Food is almost always shared; people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. Food is also an occasion for sharing, for distributing and giving, for the expression of altruism, whether from parents to children, children to in-laws, or anyone to visitors and strangers. Food is the most important thing a mother gives a child; it is the substance of her own body, and in most parts of the world mother’s milk is still the only safe food for infants. Thus food becomes not just a symbol of, but the reality of, love and security.”  (See Ms. Fox’s entire article on-line @: “Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective —  The Myth of Nutrition” by Robin Fox.  Published by The Social Issues Research Center)

Eating as an enjoyable social event has deep cultural roots. Most of us have a large store of positive memories dating back to our childhood where food was at the center of family and group activities.  Even in times of sadness, food brings us together.  When someone is sick or has died in our families, our neighbors and friends bring food or we gather collectively over a spread of food to console each other and provide support.  And these patterns are almost universal regardless of culture.  We often welcome new people to a group and say goodbye to valued colleagues over food

We eat collectively at sporting events, snack at the movies, turn hikes into picnics, throw dinner parties for friends, invite others to join us for a business lunch, and transform major football championships around the world into food fest parties in our homes.  Moreover, we seem to do this without thinking much about it.  It just seems to come naturally.

The dynamic of sharing food in a work setting  usually has a similar positive social effect, whether it happens organically or strategically.  My workshop participants clearly appear to grasp this understanding at some level in making the food suggestions they do.

At work, gatherings involving food promote relaxation and releases stress. Such gatherings encourage friendlier conversations during which the tensions around old disagreements can dissipate. While such gatherings may not solve a work problem itself, they often suggest avenues through dialog that in time just might.  At a minimum, they are a welcome break from the pressure to perform and produce that characterizes so much of modern work.

While I would never rank food as the most important tool in a successful managers kit bag, at times, it might just be the right ingredient to accomplish a legitimate management aim.

Categories: Leadership, Managing & Leading, Managing People

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. Good article, Terry. Food works in the academic realm too. Nibblies at department meetings; and free food all over campus for the studnuts — seems to calm the savage beasts. BTW, glad to see you referencing Robin Fox; Anthropology has a lot to offer in understanding the human social animal.

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