This article is an excerpt from Insight’s leadership playbook. Go to lunch with a team member to demonstrate you are personally invested in them and want to know what is important to them.
Build rapport and hear new perspectives by inviting an employee to go to lunch. Let the conversation go where it may and focus on connecting with each other as people. This can be effective one-on-one or with a group.
Why We Go to Lunch
Spending time with work colleagues (or clients, customers, suppliers, etc.) outside of a work environment can have a very humanizing effect. You may find that the client who is always thumping the table and trying to drive your agency toward the next deadline is an avid hiker who loves being outdoors. You might learn that the supplier your company has used for the last three years has new twins at home.
Take advantage of this different dynamic with your employee to both learn more about them as a person as well as let them learn about you. This lets both of you gain an additional dimension with the other, and over time it improves your rapport with this team member. Improved rapport will make your employee feel more comfortable coming to you with frustrations or concerns.
Additionally, having one-on-one (or even small group) time with members of your team away from the office reduces distractions, so you can follow through on thoughts without getting sidetracked by an email or a phone call. It allows conversations to be more theoretical and philosophical, and this is a perfect time for coaching and mentoring team members.
There is also a growing body of evidence that taking regular breaks improves productivity, creativity, and overall engagement.
How We Go to Lunch
Be smart about using this action. If there’s a possibility of your intentions being misconstrued or of it putting the employee in an uncomfortable situation, then try to do it with a small group instead of one-on-one, or don’t do it at all. Remember the goal here is to build rapport and make the other person feel valued, so use good judgment in determining if it will have that effect.
If it’s kosher with your spending guidelines, and if you plan to keep the conversation work-focused, have the company pick up the bill.
Start by simply inviting your team member to lunch. It could be for today or tomorrow, but the idea is to keep things casual. If possible, you want to avoid sending a formal meeting notice for lunch scheduled two weeks out.
You: Hey, want to grab lunch today and catch up?
Them: Sure, I just need to get through a couple of emails, but I’ll be ready in 15 minutes.
Be prepared to get turned down too; the other person may already have lunch plans, or they may not be really excited to go spend an hour with you one-on-one. That’s okay, but just keep offering and leaving the door open if you’re not initially successful.
You: Interested in getting lunch today?
Them: Not today… I brought leftovers.
You: Okay, maybe later this week. Just let me know.
This actions works much the same as Ask “How’s It Going?”—it may take some time and repetition to build the rapport you’re looking for with your team member.
Over time, your work relationship with the other person should improve: They may feel more comfortable bringing up problems or issues, discussing ideas about how to improve their lives or the company in general, or admitting failure and a need for help. Additionally, your team member’s goals and engagement or more likely to expand if they feel that they have an approachable mentor.
Carl asks his direct report, Dan, to join him for lunch.
Carl: Hi Dan! I’m going to Big Bob’s Barbecue for lunch, want to join me?
Dan: Sure, just let me know when you’re ready.
Later, at the restaurant, Dan presumes he was invited to lunch to discuss work. Carl is fine with discussing work, as the shared topic can also build rapport, but wants to make it clear that they can just chat and learn more about each other.
Dan: I’ve been reviewing the performance of our digital ad campaign and have some ideas for how we can improve.
Carl: Oh, that’s great! I didn’t know you had an interest in that. How about we set up a time this week with a marketing manager and run your thoughts by them? I’m sure they’d appreciate the extra help.
Dan: Yes, that sounds great. I’ve got one idea in particular that I think will make our Facebook ads more effective.
Carl: Cool, I’d love to see what you’ve come up with when we get back to the office. So how long have you been interested in marketing? Is it a topic of curiosity or do you have an interest in working more with marketing in the future?
Note that in the above example, Carl never suggests moving the subject away from work. He simply responds with support and ideas for how they can continue the work-related conversation later, but not much later. He doesn’t want to discourage Dan by proposing follow-up actions a week or more in the future, but he also wants to give Dan some indication that they don’t always have to talk about work. He gives Dan the opportunity to continue talking about marketing as long as he’d like, asking relevant questions about Dan’s interest in marketing, asking if he’s always had the interest, or asking if he aspires to move into a more marketing-focused role. However, note that this line of questioning lends itself to reveal Dan’s personal motivation in the subject. Carl is hoping to learn something new about Dan, not about Dan’s work product.
This is not to say Carl must move to another subject. If Dan wishes to spend the entire lunch break discussing digital marketing—since it is a passion project of his—Carl should follow along. But in this type of setting, where a direct report is faced with one-on-one time with his manager, Dan may just be looking to signal that he is an effective employee willing to contribute to other areas of the company. Part of Carl’s questioning is determining whether this is the case, or if Dan would truly like to discuss marketing over his lunch break.
When Carl gets an opportunity, he can follow up with more questions about Dan’s plans outside of work, such as whether he has any plans this weekend, where he plans to vacation next, or what he’s doing for an upcoming holiday. A lull in conversation that gives Carl such an opening is an opportunity for Carl to more strongly signal that he’d like to discuss more than just work. Carl can also talk more about himself and his interests to open Dan up to broader conversations.
Carl: Do you have anything exciting going on this weekend?
Dan: Not really, just hoping to spend some time with my family at home.
Carl: That’s great, everyone needs a lazy weekend. Last weekend I didn’t leave my house. I caught up on some TV shows with my wife since we’ve fallen behind on a few good shows. We finally finished Parks and Recreation. Have you ever watched it?
While not the most meaningful conversation one can have, this back-and-forth clearly demonstrates that Carl is looking to move beyond discussions about work and hear a little bit more about Dan’s personal interests.
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