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The Psychology of the Candy Bowl

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You know there are going to be those colleagues who always have a bowl of candy sitting on their desks or who bring donuts into the break room on Monday morning just after you’d set your alarm to hit the gym but slept in.

If you view the candy bowl as a passive-aggressive attempt at collegial sabotage (but still dig in), others admit they find comfort in knowing there’s a little sugar around.

Full disclosure: I am the candy lady.

Colleagues who know me personally are surprised by this because I rarely eat candy and am a bit of a health nut at home, even making my own granola bars and avoiding processed foods wherever possible. From time to time I’ve tried filling the bowl with dark chocolate covered acai berries, but nobody came by and eventually I had to dump the whole thing in the trash.

What they want are small packages of chocolate, peanut butter, or mints along the lines of what your children bring home after trick or treating on Halloween.

Or do they?

I asked another colleague who keeps a bowl full of candy on her desk about this.

“The candy brings people by my desk who wouldn’t normally have a reason to interact with me,” said Zeina Hinnawi, who prefers miniatures that have wrappers with little sayings on the inside.

“The notes are inspirational and they usually help to strike up a conversation.”

I was curious, so we opened one together: “Keep the promises you make to yourself.” Zeina and I split the piece of chocolate, and we both nodded, that’s a good one – the chocolate and the saying.

I am aware that colleagues will come by my office for candy even if they know I’m out for the day so it is possible that sometimes people just want candy and not the opportunity to say hello or network. Maybe, but I prefer to believe that keeping a candy bowl on your desk or bringing donuts into the office once in a while is another way of creating conversations and building relationships with your colleagues, especially, those, in Zeina’s words, you don’t interact with often.

Is socializing good for you at work?

According to an article in Forbes Magazine that quoted Alexander Kjerulf, author and speaker on happiness at work, “Socializing and getting to know [your colleagues] as people will help you to communicate better, trust each other more, and work better together.” As supervisors we know this instinctively and we are always looking for innovative ways to connect the dots here. One reason, Kjerulf noted, is because “employees who have positive workplace relationships are happier at work . . . and we know that people who are happy at work are more productive, more creative, and more successful overall.”

Another point to keep in mind, is that although you may not think you would have a reason to interact with a colleague in another department, there may be interdisciplinary projects or task forces that could bring you together in one place. In the Bureau of Consular Affairs, it’s all hands on deck during a crisis that may involve private U.S. citizens overseas, and all of us face the possibility of working side by side, across not just divisions but levels of rank as well.

While filling the candy bowl with small boxes of raisins might encourage office interaction without tempting employees with too much processed sugar, there may be other ways to foster wellness into the goals of the candy bowl. Here are a few ideas to consider:

Share your passion

The resiliency working group within my office sponsors a monthly “Share Your Passion” brown bag lunch where employees across the directorate are encouraged to sign up and tell the group about a personal project, family tradition, or hobby. A particularly well-attended Share Your Passion event was over the holidays where employees who’d served overseas shared stories and photographs of how they celebrated holidays, especially U.S. holidays, such as Thanksgiving, in foreign countries far from their extended families. Other colleagues talked about their holiday story-telling traditions that were fascinating and inspirational.

Mindful meditation

Finding an available conference room where you can hold daily lunchtime meditation sessions may be another way to bring colleagues together who may not have a reason to interact with each other. Many offices have people on their rosters who are trained to facilitate mindful meditation, and you may be able to enlist several of them to volunteer their time and to train others.

Practice self-compassion

While there are a significant number of medical studies that support limiting processed sugars from our diets, there is also a body of social science research that advocates taking a less hardline approach to self-discipline. This is important, scientists say, because people who demonstrate self-compassion may have greater success losing weight, in addition to being happier and more optimistic.

“The biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they’re afraid they’ll become self-indulgent,” the New York Times quoted Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin, who studies self-compassion. “They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line.”

Yet studies show having even a small amount of self-compassion can have a positive effect on developing healthy eating habits. The idea is that if you feel badly about eating candy, you may have a tendency to become an emotional eater, ultimately consuming more of the foods you are trying to avoid instead of less.

So occasionally digging into the office candy bowl or indulging in a donut periodically might turn out to be a healthy approach to both socializing in the office and feeling better, both emotionally and physically, at work.

The views expressed here are those of Ms. Walker and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

Carolee Walker is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Hannah Moss

I fully support the candy bowl at desk approach! I had to bring in some extra candy after an event last fall and immediately noticed an uptick in the number of interactions I had with colleagues. I don’t have the self control to keep candy at my desk all the time, but every once in a while, it’s a great way to informally invite others to stop by. Thanks for the reminder!