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Does That Cup of Coffee Make You a Better Co-Worker?

May 24, 2018

It’s no secret that many people function better when they’ve had a cup of coffee, making it one of the most popular workplace beverage choices. However, new research reveals that drinking coffee with your colleagues can also improve group performance, by making you more agreeable and responsive.

“If you look at where coffee’s being consumed, a significant amount happens in group settings,” says Rao Unnava, dean of the management school and a co-author of the study.

Here’s what the researchers found.

You’ll Be More Agreeable

According to the study, drinking caffeinated coffee in small groups before a group discussion makes you more likely to participate and have a positive view of the discussion and of your peers. 

Coffee with Co-workers: Role of Caffeine on Evaluations of the Self and Others in Group Settings” by researchers at the University of California, Davis, was recently published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. It was the first time the scientific journal has included a research study from management school professors.

In the study, college students were placed into groups that drank 12-ounce cups of coffee before having a discussion on the Occupy Wall Street movement, and groups that were given coffee after the discussion had concluded.

Those who were in groups that drank coffee beforehand had a more positive view of their discussion. However, the researchers didn’t know whether the caffeine made the difference or the mere fact of being in a group consuming a beverage was responsible for the positivity, so a second experiment was conducted.

In the follow-up tests — with a totally different group of students — the reading and discussion instructions were the same. However, all students were given a cup of either caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee. The students who consumed caffeinated coffee were more likely to have enjoyed their group discussion, and were more likely to agree to participate in future group discussions compared with those who drank decaf coffee.

You’ll Be More Alert

Caffeine can also make you more attentive in group meetings, which is important when you need to process information and provide input. According to the study, the students who drank caffeinated coffee were more alert than their decaf counterparts, and provided better input.

“We find caffeine to increase alertness, as reported by individuals performing the group task, and this alertness leads to many interesting outcomes,” says Vasu Unnava, an adjunct assistant professor at the school and one of the co-authors. “First, while there is no difference in the total number of comments made in the caffeinated versus decaffeinated groups, the number of topic-relevant thoughts made in the caffeinated group were significantly higher than those made in the decaffeinated group.”

To the researchers, caffeine seemed to increase the participants’ focus on the task. “Caffeinated students also had a more positive opinion of their own participation, and of the participation of others in the group,” she says. “Finally, they also expressed a higher intention to work with the same group again on another group task, as compared to decaffeinated group participants.”

Vasu Unnava says earlier research had established a link between caffeine and alertness in individuals, but that how increased alertness affects an individual’s performance in a group task had not been studied before. “Presumably, the increased focus seems to improve one’s assessment of one’s own participation and the assessment of people around them,” she says.

It’s Not Necessarily the Caffeine

However, Vasu Unnava says there are some things the study could not prove. “First, the design of the studies does not permit us to conclude whether there is an improvement in the performance of those who consumed caffeine or whether there is a decrement in the performance of those who consumed decaffeinated coffee.” In other words, is the caffeinated group necessarily “better” or is the decaf group worse?

Also, this was a topic in which everyone generally had the same opinion. However, if the topic is controversial and opinions vary, she doesn’t know whether the caffeinated group would still be as positive. “In addition, does the positive effect generalize to higher quantities of caffeine consumption?” It’s not clear whether drinking a small cup of caffeinated coffee would produce the same results.

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