Empathetic teams understand each other's feelings and react compassionately. That might not sound like a bottom-line issue, but ask America's CEOs: 91 percent of them believe the trait is "directly linked" to a company's financial performance. Even more impressively, 93 percent of employees surveyed for the 2019 State of Workplace Empathy study said they're more likely to stay with an empathetic employer.
Fortunately, empathy isn't a fixed trait. There are plenty of ways for leaders to build it, but the best might also be the simplest: sharing a meal.
Feels Over Meals
What makes eating together a particularly powerful source of empathy? What's different about it than, say, swapping stories at a Monday meeting?
Consider a Cornell University study that found firefighters who share meals perform better as a team. When researchers asked firefighters why they cook and eat together, they expected to hear explanations revolving around saving money. Instead, the most common answers were phrases similar to "We're like a family." Eating together reinforced the firefighters' feelings that their co-workers were extended family members.
That study spurred author and consultant Erica Keswin to found the Spaghetti Project. Each of the workshops and panels Keswin puts on feature food -- not because the participants couldn't cook it themselves, but because it's a cue to treat one another like family. It's far easier to throw a direct report under the bus from behind an office door, for instance, than it is over a plate of pasta.
Still, all meals aren't created equal. Lunch is a casual affair; it's dinner that gets us to unwind and open up.
Supper Builds Stronger Teams
In my household, dinner is the one thing that gets everyone together. We cook, work and school, and relax with a hot meal -- no devices allowed.
If that sounds unusually intimate for workplace teams, that's because it is. While sharing supper with co-workers requires vulnerability, 7:47 founder Chris Schembra suggests it also encourages fast, family-style bonding. Over the past four years, 7:47 has organized dinners for more than 5,300 business leaders at more than 70 companies, including Microsoft, Dell and PwC, sparking some 350,000 relationships.
Every 7:47 dinner follows the same format: 18 people enjoy cocktails at 6:30 p.m., set up at 7:47 p.m., eat dinner at 8 p.m. and discuss at 8:35 p.m. Schembra serves his signature pasta sauce. What makes 7:47's meals so impactful, though, isn't the sauce. Just as with family dinners, it's the discussion that truly gets attendees to open up.
At each dinner, Schembra asks the same question: "If you could give credit or thanks to one person in your life who you don't give enough credit or thanks to, who would that be?" By eliciting gratitude and taking the focus off the speaker, he gets diners to share some of their most personal moments.
Although those conversations can happen at the office, Schembra argues that they rarely do, thanks to large workloads and looming deadlines. Serving one another food signals trust and respect, which are key for the deep dinner conversations that follow. Schembra points out that an average of six people cry per dinner -- often with individuals who were strangers at the start of the night. Mothers come up most often in response to Schembra's question; childhood teachers are a close second.
Conversations like that aren't easily shrugged off. Although Schembra shares diners' email addresses afterward, it's the interactions themselves that build lasting connections. He recalls two people who sat together and later started a company. Another two became romantic partners and are now parents.
Eating together is a bonding ritual older than the first corporation. Especially in the always-on digital age, it's a chance to slow down, be vulnerable and build relationships.
Team lunches can serve that purpose in a pinch. Simply sharing a table is an act of trust. But there's a reason Mom wants everyone together for dinner: Cooking, chatting and eating together is the fastest, tastiest path to empathy.