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The Power of the Lunch Table

Time for your annual review!

As a new engineer, it may be understandable to think that your merits and promotions will be based on your work alone. Makes sense. That’s how it worked in school, and seems like an objective way to attain your worth to the company.

The reality is, how much you are liked could influence your position within the company more than how well you can engineer.


You are not alone, many people get out of academia thinking that getting a good grade at work is just a matter of doing the homework (finishing a task), passing a tests (meeting project deadline), or showing up to office hours (working those extra hours).

Now, don’t get me wrong, missing deadlines and not being proficient at your job will hurt, but so will getting on your boss’s nerves (the person who approves your promotion) or making another team member look bad (the person giving peer reviews).

The power of lunch to earn a promotion


Making Friends

As you progress in your career, it will become more important to be liked, or in other words, to be friendly. Unlike your professors, or maybe just like some of them, your grade at work will be reflected by if your management team views you as a friend, or, at least, friendly.

A classic book on this subject is the long-standing How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Its purpose is to show how to become on great terms with others and how to ask for what you need from them.

Notice how I phrased that?

The whole point of Carnegie’s book and this article is not to manipulate others to get what you want, but rather how to directly or indirectly ask for what you need, including that promotion or special task.

Lunchtime Talks

The best way I have found to build relationships with my peers and managers is to simply eat lunch in the lunchroom or join a group eating out.

The point is to mingle with others away from the lab benches and conference rooms, where the main topics of conversation are not about the project deadline but rather about people’s hobbies and families.

Where did you hike this weekend? Or, did you play that new game? How about following the local sports team or TV drama?

During the lunch conversations are where you will find out that your boss’s boss also is an avid hiker, or your teammate’s gamer handle is someone you know.

Even the ‘small talk’ banter builds your report with your coworkers as it can show your sense of humor, awareness of the team, and cultural experiences. Something that doesn’t happen with focus in the cubes.

The Importance of Being a Person

What these lunch conversations are doing for you is helping others see you as a person rather just a cog in the company machine. Cogs can be replaced, but when you attach a personhood, or better yet, a friendship, to that name, things change.

Imagine the conversation your management team is having during review time about you:

Conversation A:

OK so who has thoughts on Mike? Anyone?

Mike always seems to be in his seat from 9 to 5, and has never been late on a project.

Have you seen his desktop background though…

Conversation B:

OK, who wants to speak about Julie first?

Oh, she is fantastic, always delivers her projects on time and her reports are always professional, probably because she volunteers at the school in the morning.

Did you know she’s an avid golfer? We should invite her out the next time we go.

Which would you prefer to be spoken about you? The difference between Mike and Julie is that the management team knows about her, or hears about her from their reports.

Both finish projects on time and both could be exceptional engineers, but Mike is currently only a cog.

Practical Step

Ready for your three-step plan, four things to do and one to simply avoid, or magic diet pill? Forget it. All you need to do is help others think of you as a person and not a cog when they hear your name.

So, on your next lunch break, get away from your desk and meet your coworkers.

Bonus points: invite your manager out to lunch and find out what she likes to do on the weekend, does he have a family and a favorite hobby? Stop being a cog in their machine.

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  • Pattern-chaser

    Nice thoughts. The problem is that many programmers are borderline sociopaths. It seems to come with the territory. If your words can persuade them — us!!! — to make more of an effort to be human, that’s a good thing. But I wonder…? 😉

    • Ha-ha, unfortunately many of us fall somewhere on that spectrum. While words can’t fix socialpath issues, hopefully a bit of knowledge can help us learn new habits. It’s often not how we think, as much as how we are perceived, so even self professed socially-challenged engineers (like myself) can improve relationships just like we can improve our code.

      • Pattern-chaser

        Oh, I don’t disagree with you, and I wish you the very best of luck in this admirable initiative you’ve taken! 🙂

  • It is nice to talk to and connect personally with the other people in the office. The other reason to get up and talk to other people is to LEARN!

    I’ve found that collaborating with others is the best way to spark and refine ideas. In a lot of offices though, there’s not enough collaboration going on, since it requires interacting with the other humans 🙂

    So maybe after you’ve talked about your weekend, you’ll talk about how you’re not sure about the architecture for this next project… or the way you fixed that really difficult bug.

    • I completely agree. Too often we get comfortable in our office/cube and forget to discuss our ideas with others. The lunch table is often a rare meeting of coworkers throughout the company – a unique opportunity to get new perspectives.