One manager holds a monthly Burger Club. The idea was triggered by a newspaper article on Melbourne’s top 10 hamburgers. One Friday every month a member of the team selects the next burger to try. Orders are placed over the phone and the manager drives to the burger joint and picks up the order. The team gathers in a meeting room to consume the burgers – and to critique and score the burger. They debate the quality and taste of the wagyu beef patty versus a previous Black Angus patty, the quality of the artisan bakery bun and the Jamaican jerky sauce versus the pickles and tomato relish from last month’s entry.
On one occasion the burger place selected was close to the office so instead of ordering out they ate at the restaurant. That didn’t work out so well – not as energetic and fun – so they went back to what was working with the pick-up order and gathering in a meeting room. The team is working their way through the 10 burgers and no doubt will find another fun focus ritual when all burgers have been assessed!
Another leader had a practice of a Monday morning team coffee. The session ran from 10:00 – 10:45 at a nearby coffee shop. The only thing banned was talking “shop”. People talked about their weekends, about their family and interests, and given it was Melbourne, a post-mortem of the weekend football. Team members enjoyed the gathering and were sorry when the practice stopped after the manager was transferred from the team.
A team I was once a member of had a long-standing practice that had become a ritual; a team dinner after the monthly business results meeting. The meal was always at the same basic Indian restaurant in a nearby Sydney suburb. We’d go up the creaky wooden stairs to a private dining room, there was no need for a menu as the group had been going there for years and this aromatic tasty food would mysteriously appear. We sat around chatting.
It’s not a coincidence that a team ritual might well be centred on food. Eating a meal stimulates endorphins – the pleasure and reward chemicals of the body. So if your team event involves eating then Nature is working for you in making it an enjoyable experience.
What could be the objections?
Sometimes when we talk about bonding rituals with leaders the comment arises that some members of a team are not sociable and don’t enjoy such gatherings – they just want to do their job. My advice is that the activity is a critical team activity – as important as team meetings. A manager should require attendance (“It’s what we do as a team”). The event should involve all, and only team members – managers and their direct reports. Of course it’s desirable that everyone wants to be there, but ultimately if a team member seeks to opt out the manager should insist on attendance. If one or more team members are routinely absent then that defeats the purpose of the event.
Another objection might be that “people are so busy”. While it’s understandable that there might be occasions of urgent tasks and crises to manage, if no informal gatherings are held as a team then team cohesion and relationships will be compromised. It would be a costly trade-off.
What can you insist on?
A manager should decide a ritual that they are able to insist that team members attend. For example, Friday night drinks at the pub wouldn’t work – pubs aren’t for everyone and Friday nights aren’t for everyone. In most settings a manager could expect attendance at team coffee sessions or team lunches. Depending on the level of people involved, it would be reasonable to expect senior people attend a monthly dinner.
Task and social
If all gatherings of your team are task focused then social effectiveness will be compromised. It would be like hunter-gatherers or chimps only spending time on foraging. Anthropologists and primatologists would predict that a social group that only spends time foraging will quickly become a broken community. The payoff from bonding is collaboration, reduced tension and social harmony.