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Potluck Etiquette?

Updated: May 30, 2023

At first glance, this may not seem to have anything to do with management, but bear with me a minute.

It’s that time of year when people are getting together for more causal functions such as going on picnics or meeting at the lake or reunions or whatever. I was talking to a friend who recently attended a potluck and we got on the subject of pot luck expectations, which seem to evade many people.

When you’re invited to a potluck, often the host will supply a main dish and request a response for attendees with either a sign-up for specific items or something in various categories (like side dishes, desserts, etc.). The expectation is that each guest or “family“ group will bring something to share. Having attended numerous such events in my lifetime, I can tell you that that’s not the reality.

Typically, you might have 40 people sign up to attend. Of those 40 people, maybe half will indicate what they plan to bring; of those 20, maybe 10 will bring what they indicated and of the remaining 10 who signed up for something, maybe 5 will bring something that may or may not be related to their original dish, the other 5 will forget they ever signed up for anything. That leaves about 20 who indicated they were coming but didn’t offer any indication as to what they may or may not bring. Of those 20, maybe 5 will show up at all, and 1-2 of those will bring something.

So what are (or at least, should be) the expectations?

If you’re going to a potluck, you should expect to bring something to share. If you really want to be helpful, ask the host if they have any preferences (I have been to potlucks with lots of desserts and very few, if any, side dishes, which is fine with me but not overly balanced). If you aren’t going, don’t say you are. If something changes last minute and you can’t attend, let the host know but still try to provide whatever you said you’d bring (just because your plans changed doesn’t mean the event changed).

Fairly simple, right? So how does this relate to management?

As the “host,” managers need to understand the needs for any project. The more specific instructions (i.e., what to bring) you can provide, the more likely you’ll have success. Providing flexibility where you can is great, but have contingency plans if you get too many “desserts” (i.e., your team all wants to do the same thing/bring the same dish). Following up before the project is due can also help—is everything on track (i.e., are they still planning to bring X)? Has anything changed that affects the project (are they still coming/contributing as expected)? If things have changed, what can you do to still promote a successful project (event)?

Life can be simple or complex. We should stick with our commitments (another important topic) but clear communication is key in most situations.

Are we as managers asking for what we need or are we leaving it open and being surprised when people come empty handed or don’t show up at all?

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