How to Feed Your Team and Build a Positive Culture

As long-time readers know (and by the way, today marks the beginning of year 14 of RFL), from time-to-time readers get enthused and write back to me with better ideas than I have shared in the first place. Today I feature feedback from a friend, Bill Richards, who works, okay, he’s a judge, in the 46th District Court in Southfield, Michigan. Bill had some reflections on my post about how many readers described their workplace cultures as “heavy” or “dark” or even “toxic.” I asked him for permission to print it, because it’s so good. He agreed, and here’s what he wrote:

“On the culture question, one way to “lighten” the office culture is through food. In our court, which consists of about 37 employees, we have what I would call a food culture. I don’t know how it started, and I take no credit for it. It was here when I came here seven years ago. But I love it. People bring in food for no reason at all except to share it. Our former court administrator, a proud Notre Dame grad, brought in bagels every Monday morning in the Fall after a Notre Dame gridiron victory. I saw that, and I thought, OK, on the weekends when ND loses and Michigan wins, I’ll bring in the bagels. Staff wins more often that way.

“Once every summer, we have a court BBQ at lunchtime. We pass a sheet of paper around in the weeks leading up to the BBQ, and everyone signs up to bring a dish. In our conference room, we lay out quite a spread. People come in whenever they can, mingling and eating together. I sense no tension in our office, and I attribute a lot of that to our food culture. We deal with a lot of unhappy citizens, because people are coming to us to pay tickets and face criminal charges. Litigation is our business and that is adversarial by nature. So we are not handing out happiness. Given the nature of our business and a bare-bones staff like most governmental agencies, it is remarkable that we have a content staff.

“In a Free Press article an employee of one of the winning great-place-to-work companies said his bosses brought in pizza for lunch just to improve morale. Shortly after that, pizza and salad appeared one day for staff; now that free lunch appears a few times a year. The anonymity seems to have added an element of intrigue to the idea. Once after the lunch, a staff member put a note on the white board in the conference room, ‘thank you, anonymous donors.’ You should see the smiles for the rest of the day.

“All this has led to a ‘46th District Court Recipe Book’ that we leave out in the kitchen. It contains our favorite recipes contributed by staff over the years. We should probably give each new employee a copy. How much “lighter” would that be for openers than just giving people the sometimes “heavy” employee handbook, necessary yes, but also full of rules and expectations?

I will conclude, as Bill did in his message to me:

“Have a light–hearted day,”


  • I am very interested in this topic as I work for a State of Michigan agency that has quite an issue with worker satisfaction. Our local office has a “heavy” and negative atmosphere. I really like the idea of the office cook book. Very nice! Personally, I try to avoid food as a way to lighten the environment. With the obesity epidemic, I don’t want to encourage my staff to eat all of the time. Believe me we get enough food around here! Many people in my office are overweight and out of shape. This affects attendance and performance due to physical illness. My staff and I will often go to “lunch” together. But, instead of eating, we do other activities together. About once a quarter we do a field trip. Since we live in a culturally rich area, we have gone to the MSU gardens, an art museum, the Women’s Historical Society museum, the local zoo, etc. These are like mini staff retreats… and they are mostly free! (I have paid myself if there is a fee…well worth the investment!) We take about an hour to do these activities. Since the Department can’t afford to “splurge” on these types of employee morale boosting activities in a big way, I have taken matters into my own hands in a small way. I like to think that my unit is one of the most content and happy in the office because of these team building activities. They love taking walks by the river front and being tourists in their own town. They also get their minds freed up to think outside the box. It does not take a lot of time, but it is very meaningful for my team. They all are leading with their best selves in the office now!

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