Your team struggling? Coffee may be the answer, study suggests

Sometimes we all want to be left alone, but everyone needs some help from time to time. Collaboration is key in virtually all aspects of life, especially the business world. If a group of employees can’t work together, in all likelihood their entire department is doomed from the start. If your team has been slow to get on the same wavelength, a team of researchers from the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis and  Ohio State University has found that a gesture as simple as buying a round of coffees may be all it takes to get things back on track.

After conducting a series of experiments, the study’s authors — Vasu Unnava, Amit Singh and H Rao Unnava — observed that drinking caffeinated coffee led to a more positive atmosphere during group work sessions, increased alertness, and fostered improved teamwork. Moreover, after the group sessions, participants who drank coffee reported feeling much better about both their teammates’ and their own contributions to the project.

Not sold on the magic of mocha just yet? Team members also talked more and worked harder after drinking some coffee. While that may just sound like a case of the jitters, researchers say these caffeinated workers actually stayed more on-topic than another group who had been given decaf. So the increased activity promoted by the coffee wasn’t just nervous energy.

Humans are social creatures by nature; it’s been proven time and time again that total isolation can quickly lead to detrimental mental and physical declines. We’re all incredibly complex, though, and despite our need for social interaction, that doesn’t mean such encounters always go smoothly. Working together with a team can be challenging. Egos and personal agendas can get in the way of the end goal, ultimately leading to middling results. 

In these situations, any factor that helps establish some team cohesion can make a world of difference. Managers and companies have spent years and countless dollars searching for the perfect way to build harmony between employees. Who knew the answer may have been sitting in the break room the entire time.

“Not surprisingly, people who drank caffeinated coffee tended to be more alert. We found that increased alertness was what led to the positive results for team performance,” comments study co-author Amit Singh in a press release

During the first experiment, 72 participating undergraduate students who identified themselves as regular coffee drinkers were gathered together (and told not to drink any coffee before the meeting). Half of those students were given a cup of coffee to drink and then told to complete a series of “filler tasks” for 30 minutes so that the caffeine would have time to kick in. The other half were not given any coffee before the next phase.

Then, both groups were split into smaller discussion batches and told to talk about a controversial subject (the occupy movement, social/economic equality, etc) for 15 minutes. Afterward, all the groups were asked to evaluate their own contributions to the conversation, as well as their peers’.

Participants who were given coffee before sitting down for a talk overwhelmingly rated the overall experience, their contributions, and their group members more positively than the non-coffee group.

A second experiment was also held involving 61 students, but this time both separated groups were given coffee before sitting down for a discussion. The difference being one group drank caffeinated coffee, while the other had decaf. Once again, the students that were given caffeinated coffee reported a more positive overall experience and a more productive conversation.

The research team believes the majority of these positive associations can be traced back to the increased alertness provided by caffeine. All of the study participants were also asked to rate how awake they felt during the discussions, and those who drank regular coffee rated themselves as far more alert than the others.

Interestingly, even some participants who didn’t drink any caffeinated coffee, but still indicated they felt alert during the conversations, rated the experience as much more positive and beneficial. This suggests that the vast majority of negativity and impeded progress seen in group settings is caused by fatigue and tiredness. With this in mind, the study’s authors say coffee doesn’t have to be the only solution; exercise usually promotes alertness and likely would have the same effect if a group of team members got a workout in before sitting down to work on a project.

“We suspect that when people are more alert they see themselves and the other group members contributing more, and that gives them a more positive attitude,” Singh says.

Even though coffee helps with alertness and concentration, one could assume that discussing controversial or political topics would still lead to disagreements or even arguments. Surprisingly, the caffeinated coffee drinkers in the study said they would be more than happy to continue discussing these topics with their group members another time, even more so than the decaf group.

“Even though they are talking more, agreeing and disagreeing, they still want to work with them again,” Singh concludes. “Coffee didn’t seem to make group discussions too uncomfortable and disagreeable.”

Most of us hardly need another reason to reach for the coffee pot each morning, but if you and your team are having a tough time on your latest project, keeping these findings in mind could be a big help.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.