Team Nourishment: Teams that eat together, perform better together

Whilst conducting fieldwork for research, speaking to a wide range of practitioners from global corporate leaders to army officers, to international athletes, a theme that emerges again and again in these conversations is that of eating together. Although I do not wish to be prescriptive or presumptuous about your team environment, it is safe to say that all teams will need to eat. So, is it just a coincidence that these different people all think that eating together is important? Is it just because they all need to eat or are they picking up on something magical that sits within the ‘mundane’ practice of having lunch? What I’m getting at is the question of whether commensality (eating together) can actually improve team performance?

Before answering that question directly, something that is often brought up by practitioners about the power of eating together is the fact that it breaks down boundaries. Eating is a universal leveller; we all share it in common and it is unavoidably personal. This means that the boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘life’ are disrupted through eating together. If teams are groups of people whose work involves high levels of task and relationship interdependence towards common objectives, it is easy to see why participating in activities that embrace both the tasks and the relationships together might be healthy for a team.

You may be familiar with the old adage, ‘the family that eats together, stays together’, well research by Kevin Kniffin and colleagues found that firefighters who cook and eat together, perform better as a team. Not as catchy a refrain I grant you, but a similar message. The useful thing about Kniffin at al.’s research is that Fire Stations all typically have domestic facilities, i.e. they all have a kitchen, but they don’t all use it in the same way. Their study found that in Fire Stations where the crew actively participated in preparing a meal, eating it and cleaning up afterwards together there was a higher level of team performance (based on a series of performance measures) that was not explained by any other adaptive characteristics, such as cooperative behaviour.

There are two interesting things about this idea of commensality for a team. The first is that since all teams have to eat, it is an opportunity to embed, strengthen and develop positive team relations and functioning through an activity that all individuals need to participate in anyway. Secondly, in the high-risk, ‘high-reliability’ environment of firefighting where the world is governed by protocols, procedures and structure, it is counterintuitive to think that some of the power of their team performance comes from something as innocent as eating together. As Kniffin at al. say, the firefighters “maintain and leverage the mundane and powerful activity of eating”.

I like to think of commensality in terms of nourishment for a team, and I use nourishment, rather than sustenance deliberately. ‘Nourishment’ takes on a higher level of meaning in the context of teamwork, if we take the lessons from Kniffin’s firefighters, preparing, eating and cleaning-up together represents a sort of holistic nourishment activity for a team whereby it is both literally and figuratively nourished. There is even a form of team meta development if the team performed the act of self-nourishment by actually preparing the meal, too.

The very act of contributing to the production of a shared meal transcends culture, languages, roles, preferences, genders and so many other complex characteristics that constitute a team. When you mix in the fact that preparing and serving a meal for a group of people is normally a team sport by necessity, one of the most powerful and functional activities a team can engage in is simply cooking dinner for itself. This act provides nourishment on multiple levels and is inherently satisfying.

So, that common theme that keeps coming up in my conversations with team practitioners seems to be backed-up by evidence. Teams that eat together, perform better together. So, in every team away day that ever was, perhaps the most important bit was when the team ‘stopped’ for lunch…

Kniffin, K. M., Wansink, B., Devine, C. M., & Sobal, J. (2015). Eating together at the firehouse: How workplace commensality relates to the performance of firefighters. Human Performance, 28(4), 281-306.