Listening in the lunchroom can be a learning experience

Breaking bread with employees can foster trust and communication.

Most work is done by people in companies. And to prosper in a company, it helps to understand it not only as an organization of skills but also as a society of people.

“Company” has its origins in Latin and it means “with bread.” Centuries ago, merchants traveled Europe in search of trading opportunities. Since many opportunities involved meeting strangers, it was a custom to begin by sharing bread. And that sharing eventually became the identifier of the merchants themselves.

At the time, much of Europe lived perilously close to starvation, and the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” had an immediacy that, fortunately, would be erased by economic development.

“Breaking of bread” has not lost its power. It still encourages conversation. At a meal, many differences simply disappear. Strangers become companions, if only for a while.

Some foods naturally break down social barriers. It is difficult to put on airs when eating a slice of pizzaor an order of barbecued ribs.

While a significant number of people eat their lunch at their desk, most workplaces have at least a break room or some facility where workers can prepare and eat lunch. As long as there is a table and a place to sit down, it qualifies as a break, or lunch, room.

Few managers are ever seen in the lunchroom, and that is unfortunate because it is a place where they can learn a lot. If you want to understand how things really work at your business, all you need to do is listen in the lunchroom. And if you follow a few guidelines, it will make you a more effective manager.

Set a goal but not a schedule. If you show up in the lunchroom every Thursday at 11:45 a.m., it will look like a “project” or an item on a checklist. It is OK to be a creature of habit, but let it come naturally.

Remember you are there to listen, not to show off how smart you are. You may have academic degrees that the others don’t, but bad coffee and questionable vending machine sandwiches are great equalizers.

Bring reading material, preferably a magazine or journal article. While smart phones and laptop screens are “don’t bother me” private, an article on paperis a social item. Everyone can see what you are reading, and it can act as a conversation starter. If you are studying Boolean algebra, for example, you might expect your companions to wonder why. And that gives you an opportunity to talk about data analysis and how that could improve customer service or inventory control. A book on sports can start a conversation about who has a chance to make the playoffs. Conversation can lead to trust and shared information.

Don’t take notes; rely on your memory and jot down later any salient points.

Don’t get drawn in to expressing political opinions. Learn to listen carefully while being non-committal about your own thoughts. The same for religion; show respect but keep your beliefs to yourself.

If done right, breaking bread in the lunchroom can provide you with perspective on how systems, operations and regulations look from the front lines. This, in turn, will reshape the way you do your job and make you a better manager. And you might even enjoy it.

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