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BW Businessworld

More Cake, Anyone?

Here is to more cake meetings, synchronized coffee breaks and the perfect martini!

Photo Credit : ShutterStock


Alex Pentland, American academic and entrepreneur, most commonly known as one of the foremost data scientists in the world, made a very unusual suggestion to a CEO of an organization – he suggested that the firm synchronize their coffee breaks. And so, the firm did. Know what happened next? Profits grew by USD 15mn, and employee satisfaction by 10%. #TrueStory.

In fact, the Swedes even have a term for it: they call this fika, loosely translated into ‘collective restoration’. But let’s come back to fika in just a bit.

Evolutionary biologist William Muir of Purdue University is now famous for the superchicken experiment he ran – as an effort to study productivity. He created two groups - one with an average flock of chickens, and the other comprising the most productive chickens individually, and he bred them both for six generations. In time, the average flock of chickens fared much better in productivity while most of the superchickens succumbed to cutthroat competition and ended up killing each other.  The results were shocking in many ways because until then, most people were firm believers of the popular Darwinian belief that creating a better society was a matter of selecting the fittest and best individuals.

Findings similar to this superchicken experiment have been observed in many a research on team building in the years that have followed.

A group of researchers at MIT found that teams who achieved the most standout results were not those that had individuals with the highest IQ; neither were they teams that had the highest aggregate IQ. Instead, the best performing teams were those that scored high on three counts: equality in airtime (which means no single person was the driver and no single person was back seat Charlie, everyone had an equal voice), high levels of social sensitivity towards each other, and lastly – no prizes for guessing this one – a high number of women.

In 2012, Google conducted a project called Aristotle that looked at 180 active teams across the entire company. What they found was that the first step towards teamwork actually happens while you’re putting your team together. Yes, it’s important to have individuals who are competitive, highly goal-oriented and aggressive in their approaches on your team – but filling a team with just one type of personality will eventually prove to be counterproductive. It’s much like making that perfect martini; vermouth, gin and an olive – each critical to the success of the overall outcome, but too much of any, and a drink of leisure becomes a drink of labor. An ideal team therefore has thinkers, doers, extroverts, introverts, creators and executors in a manner that no one person does all the talking, and no one person does all the listening. Airtime is shared and diversity celebrated.

Which brings me to the crucial second ingredient – social sensitivity, empathy and trust.

Personally, I find this the single most vital factor that can make or break a team. You see, the workplace is an infinitely better place when we are surrounded by friends we like, role models we admire and subordinates we enjoy mentoring. Given that we spend the majority of our lives at work, being in charge of a group of people is not a responsibility we should take lightly. Getting to build and maintain a great team filled with trust, bonhomie and camaraderie, a team that plays together in complete synchronization with each other is one of the greatest privileges of that position and imperative to achieving victory. Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy method to achieving trust, no set of rules one could follow for ‘guaranteed’ results. Building trust relies heavily on social capital – a concept that says successful teams work with interdependency and reliance; and individual successes can only be optimized through collective success.

So how does one go about building trust? 

One way of doing it is getting your team to see each other beyond their work personas, and not just as automatons with whom they share breathing space. Initially, forging that human connect may not happen organically, and the first informal lunch/dinner or offsite may need some significant icebreaking. But forcing togetherness often acts as the first precursor to building trust. Hence fika, and hence the synchronized coffee breaks. Makes sense, right?

The first time I became a business head in my career, I had to lead an all-new, all-male team. Naturally I chose to make an impression on my alpha underlings by bringing in an elaborately frosted cake garnished with icing and laden with pink rosebuds for our very first meeting together on a fine Monday morning. All the Rambos in the room clustered around the table, staring with horror at the cake as if it would detonate any second. A few moments ago, these testosterone infused creatures had been sizing up their opponents and calculating how they would jump over each other’s carcasses on their way up the corporate ladder. Now they were internally groaning at the luck of having a female boss who wanted to use them as participants for her kitty party.

I ignored their glowering looks as I brightly urged them to dig into the cake and began quizzing them about their weekend. They were eager to get started on presenting spreadsheets, tallying data and telling me of the revolutionary ideas they had thought of which would catapult our small company into the big league overnight. But all I wanted to know was how their weekend had gone, what movies they had watched and what fun activities they had done with their friends and families. With immense reluctance and much foot-dragging, I was allowed a peek into the human beings that lay behind the sharp suits and hungry ambitions that populated the room.

Obviously it was not just friendly conversations and small talk and we did get to work eventually, much to the men’s relief. But every Monday morning, without fail, there would be a cheerful fruity and flowery cake waiting at the table, signaling both the start of a hard-working week and inviting a freewheeling chat to begin it with.

It took many weeks and awkward silences for my macho heroes to reveal their inner softies, but it did happen. The men in the room on that first Monday only saw strangers and competitors when they looked at each other. But over a period, they started seeing each other as friends, confidants and teammates. The cake went from being an object of scorn to a symbol of community, friendship and togetherness.

In the past three decades, many of the teams I’ve led have disbanded or evolved and changed. Yet my cake meetings have become the subject of folklore, filled with the nostalgia of memories of working together, some of the victories we achieved, the failures we encountered and the joys and conflicts we shared which powered us through both good and bad times.

Finally, the third element in building a winning team of course is having more women in the team, which ensures diversity, and fosters collaboration, but you know that already don’t you?

Until then, here’s to more cake meetings, synchronized coffee breaks and the perfect martini!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Apurva Purohit

The author is President of the Jagran Group

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