Food: The Secret Barrier to Organizational Resilience

Food: The Secret Barrier to Organizational Resilience

Inclusion is About Food (and other things)

There has been a lot of talk lately about inclusion. What is it? Do we need it? Do we have it? Well, if you’re trying to increase the resilience of your team, there is no time for debate. Building a resilient organization cannot happen without inclusion. When we hear the word inclusion we may think of a specific issue (like race or gender), but the need for inclusion spans well beyond one topic. Inclusion is about enabling people to feel safe so that they can show up as their best selves every day at work. It’s about ensuring that the noise and distractions created when people are marginalized don’t suck the life out of our organizations. And, it’s about equipping organizations to become resilient by ensuring that the people in them don’t need to think about anything but contributing their very best to what you’re trying to deliver, at least at work.

Anything that creates a power struggle, isolates or marginalizes people in your organization is a barrier to resilience – and, believe it or not – one of the greatest barriers right now is food. Yes, food. This may seem strange, and it is perhaps ahead of its time, but disregarding dietary requirements is increasingly becoming a de-railer of resilience. 

Food Can Isolate People

We eat at work. We eat socially. As a society, we connect over food. It’s a huge part of our collective psyche and well-being. Until it isn’t.

There are an increasing number of people who either by choice or medical necessity abide by a restrictive diet. One of the most difficult parts of any restrictive diet is the social aspect of it. For those with dietary restrictions , eating out, particularly with colleagues or clients , can become extremely difficult. Not only because of the lack of understanding and necessary options available, but because it opens the door to criticism, questions, and the sudden need to explain and justify, which can hijack the flavor of a positive dining or social experience.  

I have personally experienced how food can cause isolation. One day without warning, I
began to experience debilitating abdominal pain (which I later learned was a result of a food issue). Little did I know, I would spend the next six months balancing business travel and meetings with hospital visits and painkillers while trying to deal the pain and take care of my clients. 

I knew that treating the pain that doubled me over, would only buy so much time and worse, I pride myself on being “low maintenance” and making very few special requests of clients. But now, I couldn’t eat. It didn’t take long to realize that my focus on secretly finding safe food without drawing attention to myself was taking over my ability to be effective. I considered leaving the business I founded because I couldn’t eat what clients were serving and I didn’t want to be “that person” who needed a customized meal. There are people going through issues like this in every organization in the world. Think of those with peanut allergies. Believe me, it is terrifying.

Many people, through medical necessity, are thrust into situations like this with no choice or preparation. Any new celiac, allergy, intolerance or malabsorption patient, at some point, will suddenly find themselves in a situation where it is no longer safe to sit down and enjoy a meal. Instead, they must first figure out the ingredients of anything they expect to eat. Often, things like gluten, lactose or fructose are not easily understood by restaurant staff and your employee, trying desperately not to be singled out, must decipher what is least likely to give them a reaction from a list of available options, hoping against hope that the guess they or the wait staff made works in their favor.

Food Can Marginalize People

As if that isn’t challenging and stressful enough for those with a serious medical condition, add a few laughs, eye rolls, and comments muttered from colleagues intended to be funny. Where does the focus shift to at that point? It shifts off what’s important. It shifts away from any results to be delivered or productive relationships with your team and onto being self-conscious, uncomfortable – right back down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to safety. No one can contribute their best under stress.

Organizations cannot build resilience when people are unsafe or marginalized, regardless of the reason. And the way we handle food, believe it or not, has become an increasingly big one.

In my case, I had a purpose. My comfort zone had me trapped secretly foraging for food but that wasn’t the purpose I was after. I found a way out because of my own Resilience Framework. No diet is impossible, I’m pretty creative and I can now talk about it and discreetly ask for help.

Removing The Food Barrier

There isn’t a person alive who makes a lifestyle choice as significant as a diet for any reason other than to improve their health or support a deeply held conviction.

That is a person’s right, and often it’s their necessity. We don’t always know someone’s reason or story and frankly, it is none of our business. If leaders and organizations want to become resilient, supporting employee’s food choices, either with options or inclusion is crucial. It creates safety and inclusion and allows us to bring their unbridled best self to work.

Any judgment or lack of support on these types of choices inhibits resilience. As leaders and colleagues, we don’t need to understand what those issues may be, but we need to support our employees in feeling safe if we want to remove the barriers to resilience.

If your team can use help eliminating barriers to building resilience and creating an environment that allows everyone to thrive on the most disruptive day, call us. It’s what we do.

*This is an excerpt from Resilience: It’s Not About Bouncing Back, a new book by Jennifer Eggers and Cynthia Barlow.