Here is an excerpt from an article written by Thomas Seeley for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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How the hive makes its most important decision
One of the popular misconceptions about honey bees is that their lives are ruled by a queen or perhaps by even some more fanciful system. But in the forty years that I’ve spent studying bees, I’ve learned that their colonies are remarkably complex, in many ways comparable to an animal brain, despite being individually quite simple. And every year, faced with the life-or-death problem of choosing a new home, honey bees stake everything on a process that includes collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. It is a democratic process that humans — especially office drones — might do well to emulate.
When a beehive becomes overpopulated, usually in the late spring or early summer, some two-thirds of the workers and the old queen, often up to 10,000 bees in total, leave home in a swarm and gather on a nearby tree branch in a beard-shaped cluster. From there, a few hundred scout bees, which are often the bees that have the most experience with the world beyond the hive, take off in all directions, searching for tree cavities. The ideal space for a new hive can be difficult to find: the opening should be small, about 10 meters off the ground, and lead to a 40-liter cavity inside a sturdy, living tree. Each scout that discovers a promising site inspects it to see if it is suitably roomy and secure, and then returns to the cluster to announce her find by performing a waggle dance.
The dance indicates both the location and the quality of the site.
As the scouts report on their respective sites, other scouts observe and follow the directions to the indicated locations. (The direction of the waggle dance shows the direction of the new location relative to the angle of the sun, and the duration of each circuit of the dance indicates distance — I told you this was complicated!) Each scout inspects the site she navigated to and if she agrees that is a desirable dwelling place, she too performs a waggle dance when she returns to the swarm.
Bees are thoroughly honest advertisers. The better she judges the site, the longer she dances, and the more effective she is in recruiting other scouts to make their own forays to the spot. This means that, despite the competing information that scouts bring back to the swarm, eventually, usually over a day or two, enough scouts will agree on the best site to cause them to induce the rest of the swarm to fly there.
Even though an individual bee is not particularly intelligent, the collective intelligence of the group produces impressive results. Almost always — about 90 percent of the time in my experiments — the swarm chooses the best of the options it has found.
What we can learn from the hive
For millions of years, the scouts on honey bee swarms have faced the task of selecting proper homes. Evolution by natural selection has structured these insect search committees so that they make the best possible decisions. What works well for bee swarms can also work well for human groups. We can learn from the bees the following five guidelines for achieving a high collective IQ.
1. Remind the group’s members of their shared interests and foster mutual respect, so they work together productively. The scout bees know instinctually that their interests are aligned toward choosing the optimal home site, so they work together as a team. There are no clashing curmudgeons in a bee swarm.
2. Explore diverse solutions to the problem, to maximize the group’s likelihood of uncovering an excellent option. The scout bees search far and wide to discover a broad assortment of possible living quarters.
3. Aggregate the group’s knowledge through a frank debate. Use the power of a fair and open competition to distinguish good options from bad ones. The scout bees rely on a turbulent debate among groups supporting different options to identify a winner. Whichever group first attracts sufficient supporters wins the debate.
4. Minimize the leader’s influence on the group’s thinking. By functioning as an impartial moderator rather than a proselytizing boss, a leader enables his group to use its combined knowledge and brainpower. The scout bees have no dominating leader and so can take a broad and deep look at their options.
5. Balance interdependence (information sharing) and independence (absence of peer pressure) among the group’s members. Only if ideas are shared publicly but evaluated privately will the group be good at exploring its options and making good choices. Scout bees share freely the news of their finds, but each one makes her own, independent decision of whether or not to support a site.
I’ve used these methods in running my own groups, and they can be remarkably effective at building consensus and producing good decisions. Let the bees show you that with the right organization, democratic groups can be remarkably intelligent, even smarter than the smartest individuals in them.
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Thomas Seeley is a Professor of Biology in Cornell University’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior. He’s the author of three books, most recently Honeybee Democracy.
To check out Ndubuisi Ekekwe’s HBR article, The Leadership of Ants, please click here.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Tony Schwartz for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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In August, I posted a blog titled Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything. Over the subsequent three months it has become one of HBR’s most widely read blogs ever.
The notion that we can be excellent at anything prompted passionate debate. On the one hand, it’s empowering and inspiring to believe that excellence is within our reach in any area to which we devote ourselves with sufficient diligence — something the researcher Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.”
Just think of how many movies — often based on true stories — tell the story of inspiring teachers, coaches and mentors helping undervalued kids become extraordinary performers: The Blind Side, Stand and Deliver, Lean On Me, Mr. Holland’s Opus, The Bad News Bears, and Dangerous Minds, among many others.
At the same time, it’s daunting to consider that when we ourselves fall short of excellence, it’s not that we lack talent but rather we haven’t put in the right kind of effort.
There is precious little scientific evidence to suggest that genes are our destiny — and more and more evidence of neuroplasticity — the capacity to influence the way our genes express themselves. So what, then, can leaders do to most effectively inspire and nurture excellence in those they lead? Here are six keys:
1. Ban words like “talented,” “gifted,” and “special” from your vocabulary. Well meaning as these words may be, they tend to give people credit for something they did nothing to earn, while also suggesting that others don’t have equal potential. Consider replacing these words with ones like “effective,” “determined,” “accomplished,” “skilled,” “persevering,” and “masterful,” all of which give due credit to effort.
2. Regularly, genuinely, and specifically acknowledge and appreciate people’s successes. Believe deeply in their potential, enthusiastically encourage their passions, and don’t be overly fazed by their failures. There may be nothing more motivating to the people you lead than to notice what they’re doing well, and to express your appreciation with detail and specificity. Likewise, there may be no single more powerful act than to handwrite and mail someone a personal note of appreciation.
3. Provide constant feedback. Annual or semi-annual reviews are vastly insufficient and often worthless. Most people don’t improve their skills over time, in large part because they don’t get consistent, specific feedback. That’s different than judgment or criticism. As often as possible, resist pointing out people’s deficits, and focus instead on where you can help them improve or take it to the next level in any given area.
4. Create and protect periods of uninterrupted focus. Don’t demand instant responses from your people all day long. Interruptions fracture their attention, and absorbed focus is a prerequisite to high quality work, especially on the most challenging tasks. Stop measuring your people by how many hours they work, and assess them instead based on the value they produce.
5. Encourage and model intermittent renewal throughout the day. Great performers, the research shows, work intensely for periods no longer than 90 minutes and then stop to recover and refuel. Create a “renewal room” so people have a place to truly chill out. Nothing better fuels productivity in the afternoons than a 20-30 minute nap between 12 and 2 p.m,
and encouraging people to exercise at midday runs a close second.
6. Tie the pursuit of excellence to a larger mission. Excellence requires enormous effort. You need to give your people a compelling reason to push beyond their comfort zones. What most of us hunger for is evidence that what we’re doing truly matter and serves something beyond the bottom line. CEOs such as Alan Mullally at Ford, John Chambers at Cisco, and Steve Jobs at Apple have done a great job rallying their people around a higher mission. Start by defining what you truly stand for, share with others what gets you up in the morning as often as you can, and encourage people to go through the same exercise for themselves.
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Tony Schwartz is president and CEO of The Energy Project. He is the author of the June, 2010 HBR article, The Productivity Paradox: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of People by Demanding Less, and co-author, with Catherine McCarthy, of the 2007 HBR article, Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time. He is also the author of the new book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance (Free Press, 2010).
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Li Xin Bai for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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Consider the following findings from the Hay Group:
Research conducted worldwide shows that leadership contributes to 70% of corporate atmosphere, while corporate atmosphere contributes to 30% of corporate performance. Therefore, leadership can exert direct influence on 21% of corporate performance.
In Chinese companies, 19.1% of the managers are found to be high-performance leaders, 9.8% inspiring leaders, 13.4% leaders who create no obvious value, and 57.7% leaders who actually discourage their employees. That is to say, 70% of the managers either don’t help or discourage their people.
The first conclusion reinforces that leadership does have a significant impact on organizational performance. But the second conclusion tells us that leadership development in Chinese companies really has a long way to go.
As a follower, we may not be able to change our leader’s style. But we can help solve the problem by adjusting our own work style. Based on my experience — meeting with two or three CEOs a week for the past five years — I have come to think of leaders as falling into one of three categories. Being able to categorize which type of leader I’m working with has helped me figure out how to work most effectively with them.
Sun-like leaders. The quintessential sun-like leader is an entrepreneur, one who takes the lead in everything,
just as the sun illuminates everything. Their subordinates get close supervision. These hands-on leaders sometimes feel like if they’re not involved, they’ve lost control — as their follower, you need to be aware of this sense of insecurity.
When working with such a leader, be sympathetic. Include him in work where he can demonstrate his ability — he wants to be useful, so give him something to do! Invite him to get involved — he will do so anyway, and bringing him in increases the odds that he’ll support your work. Make your own job easier by leveraging his experience and his insights with customers and others.
Moon-like leaders. The moon reflects the light of the sun; a moon-like leader reflects the light of his employees. He is more open-minded and trusting of his people. Only when you lose your way — just like someone walking a dark road at night — would he step forward to shed light on what he thinks you should do. This kind of leadership gives employees room for development. However, trust between the follower and the leader does require timely maintenance; when the leader does step forward, be willing to answer questions and open your project up for inspection.
Star-like leaders. Leaders of this type will only indicate a direction, like the North Star. Their teams, however, still need a light source, so star-like leaders need followers who can step up and light the way for others. Only those leaders with great wisdom have the confidence to be star-like. Their empowerment shows high recognition for your capabilities. This kind of leadership only works when the leader has built a capable team that can function with minimal supervision. As a follower to this kind of leader, you’ve got a great platform, but you have to demonstrate that you deserve the trust you’ve been given.
In reality, each of us is both leader and follower. As a leader, review your behaviors and words from the perspective of a follower; as a follower, ask yourself how you can work more effectively with your leaders. Imposing high standards in both roles will improve performance for all.
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Li Xin Bai is a Senior Strategy Consultant for IBM in China.