Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Taking Your Group to Dinner

A new manager came to me recently with a problem. She had taken her group to dinner for a release celebration. The team ordered far more than she had expected, far more than seemed reasonable, and she felt taken advantage of by the group. The group ordered appetizers, drinks, bottles of wine, tended toward the high side of the entree items, and ended with desserts.

We've all seen people who abuse such efforts by the company to build more of a team atmosphere. They seem to think that the company owes it to them or that the company can afford it. It's easy to see how a manager, who identifies with and represents the company, could feel hurt by this behavior. Besides the manager's hurt feelings, I've seen group members themselves offended by similar behavior at other events.

It's unfortunate that we don't think to take the time to teach new leaders how to deal with common situations like this. Next time you take your group out, there are some techniques you can use to set the right expectations:

  • Decide up front where the limits are. Know if you want to include drinks, appetizers or desserts. Money spent should have value to the company. If the goal of the meal can be served without extravagances, avoid them. Sometimes the goal is best served by lavishly celebrating. Money wisely saved or spent is in the best interest of the company, and ultimately of its employees.
  • When the server comes, start by setting an example with your drink order. You'll notice that your team will watch you to see what you order and take their cue from you. If you are sporting for drinks, order a drink. If you're not a drinker, make a point of telling everyone, "I don't want a drink, but feel free to order one if you like." If you don't want drinks served, order a soda.
  • You can also use a more direct approach, "I'll cover the first round of beer" or "I'll get a couple of bottles of wine for the table." You can even add the more explicit, "If you want other drinks, you'll need to cover those."
  • Appetizers are more tricky. I find it helpful to control the whole question by ordering them for the table. Your group will usually allow you to lead this part of the meal. This doesn't mean you shouldn't get people's opinions about what to order, but you should usually be the one to order them. If you want to be more extravagant, give permission to the group, "Why don't people order some appetizers."
  • Set an example with the entree you order. Most employees will order in roughly the same price range as you if they can. If you want them to feel free to order anything, don't order a cheap entree.
  • When it comes to dessert, you can head it off by responding quickly when the server asks, "Nothing for me, thank you." People will tend to wait for you to respond first and follow you lead. So, if you want people to feel free to order desert and coffee, order them yourself, even if you don't really want them.

The keys to success are to play the host and take the lead. When people see you as the host rather than some faceless company, they are less likely to abuse the situation. They won't be rude to a person they can see. When you take the lead, you are in a position to set the tone with your examples. Leadership in this situation is mostly a matter of speaking first. Don't be shy. People will look to you for limits. Your quick responses also will remove the uncomfortable silence while people try to figure out what is okay to order.

I'd love to hear the other ideas and techniques you use in this situation.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think those are valueable techniques, but I'd add a caution for your querent. If a dinner is a celebration, it should feel like a celebration. Ordering appetizers, wine, and desert are, at least among my social set, a pretty common thing when trying to live it up a bit.

If budget is an issue, don't go to a nice place and then limit everybody to a low-end entree and no frills. Instead, find something cheap but interesting, like a great Chinatown hole in the wall, a character-filled taqueria, or a night at an old-school bowling alley. Or put in the time yourself by preparing a riverside picnic.

I once was at a release "celebration" where during the lunch hour the manager ordered in some mostly adequate supermarket deli food, said some vaguely positive things, and gave everybody unexciting, impersonal prizes like $50 Sears gift cards. For hard-working professionals who had each put in at least 100 hours of overtime for the challenging project (and some much more), it came off as stingy and sad, making morale even worse. At least two people went back to their desks and started working on their resumes.

If you're trying to reward your team, make sure it will feel like a reward!

Ken Flowers said...

Excellent thoughts. I'm in full agreement. Thanks.

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