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Leadership Lessons from the Hive

Honeybees must be doing something right: they have flourished for over 100 million years. The clues to their long-lived success lie in their clever social organization. In my work with bees I’ve discovered that we humans—specifically those of who dwell in corporate environments—can learn a lot from our apian friends.

The work of a bee colony involves three important organizational lessons, each presented as a dilemma:
1. Protect the future (without sacrificing the near term)
2. Permit individuality (without eroding community)
3. Promote stability (without quashing flexibility)

1. Protect the future
Never place the survival of the hive in jeopardy.

Bees are in it for the long term. They continually and carefully monitor the intake of nectar and pollen to stay vital, but never at the expense of their long-term interests; and most important, they never put themselves in an all-or-none position where the life of the hive is placed in jeopardy.

Bees are not indiscriminant revenue chasers: they do not focus exclusively on the most productive flower patches at any given time, and for good reason. Conditions change rapidly; what works right now may not work tomorrow. So when they discover a lucrative vein of nectar, the entire colony does not rush off to mine it, no matter how enriching the short-term benefits. Someday the nectar in a rich patch will stop flowing and they must be prepared to rapidly reallocate resources to other productive sites. To do so, they maintain an exploratory foraging force—their R&D investment—that continually searches for the next new revenue stream. Their basic strategy is to maximize returns over a broad geographic area and extended time horizon.

In the corporate world, executives must exercise self-restraint to remain focused on long-term goals. Personal temptation, coupled with social pressure to grow the balance sheet, make it all too easy to become seduced by the thrill of immediate rewards. For example, bankers who refrained from making risky loans often had to justify their actions to demanding directors (and other interested onlookers) who watched as their banks seemingly squandered opportunities that other banks were enjoying. They had to stick to their principles while watching their less risk-averse counterparts earn huge bonuses. Herds can be very persuasive when they are headed straight for you. Today, the banks that were able to resist the go-go years of “innovative” mortgage lending and short-term bonanzas are recognized as the ones who operated wisely.

2. Permit Individuality
Act independently, yet collectively, to achieve common goals.

If ever there was an empowered workforce, it is in the hive. A colony’s many thousands of workers act according to information gathered and conveyed by others and through their own observations. The bees do what is best under the circumstances, independent of a central authority. The heart of the hive is the queen, and she gives commands, but not all of them—and not always the most important ones, like finding a new home.

When a hive gets too big to manage, it divests itself of just under half of its members. A couple hundred scout bees are sent out to look for a new home and return to the swarm to communicate what they have found. As the bees collect more evidence from the field and relate their preferences, opinion converges on a single solution. Their decentralized decision processes work because of two critical strategies that every business should employ if it wants to avoid making costly mistakes:

—First, the bees remove decision bias by sampling from a wide range of options versus weighing just a few alternatives that are promoted by a couple of bees. In organizations, these few might be the boss and the resident expert.

—Second, they avoid blind conformity and ruinous informational cascades by having bees independently evaluate the available options versus following the opinions of others; the bees discourage obsequious, “yes-women” thinking.

Decentralization works for the bees for the same reason it works for companies: organizations that push decision-making out into the field are more agile and responsive to changing circumstances. That is why Edward Whitacre, Jr., Chief Executive Officer at GM, is trying to push accountability for decisions out to his core executives and line managers. As he tries to transform the plodding bureaucracy he inherited, he might consider the bees’ recipe for success. In addition to having sound decision processes, they have consistent and compact communications, excellent knowledge systems and coordinating mechanisms, superior measurement and feedback systems, and competent, well-trained workers (yes, they train their workers). Empowerment in the hive works because the bees always know what is going on around them and are capable of responding. Moreover, ultimately, the scouts are profoundly accountable for results: make the right decisions and they live; get them wrong and they die.

Honeybees are able to act independently, yet collectively, because they all focus on the same goals. Everything is done for the good of the whole and the community is central to the operations of the colony. As a true social system, every bee works and sacrifices to produce an organization that is greater than the sum of the parts. In contrast to the marauding, independent “lone wolves” of corporations who are tolerated as long as they are useful, there are no “lone bees” in the colony and it is preposterous to imagine a honeybee living a solitary life outside of the hive. In the hive, it is the community that counts.

3. Promote Stability
Diversity produces stability in the hive.

The activity of a colony appears chaotic to a casual observer. Bees crawl over one another and fly to and from the hive at irregular intervals and in multiple directions. Yet, amid this apparent confusion, there is an underlying order.

The bees have systems that I refer to as “flexigid": they are at once flexible and rigid; taut and loose. One notable way that bees are able to act fluidly and independently while maintaining stability is through diversity. It may seem counterintuitive, but diversity produces stability in the hive. What’s more, the more diverse the colony, the more productive the hive. The reasons are simple. If bees within the colony weren’t genetically diverse, they would all react and behave the same way to environmental events; so, for example, they would not travel as far from the hive or sample as many flowers. Even worse, they would invite unwanted extremes. For example, bees keep the temperature of the hive relatively constant at about 93 degrees Fahrenheit. The bees heat the hive by contracting two sets of flight muscles and cool the hive by flapping their wings. However, they don’t all act at the same time. If they did, the temperature would fluctuate too much for the bees to tolerate. Thanks to their diversity, the bees differ in their sensitivity to temperature and alter their behavior at different times in response to climatic conditions. The result is that the temperature inside the hive remains relatively stable.

Without doubt, workplaces should be nondiscriminatory. However, employee composition in itself only ensures diversity in its most elementary form. Achieving true diversity entails much more than a checklist of surface characteristics. Effective hiring also requires attention to the interests, preferences, and talents that make people unique. 

For example, the Danish enzyme maker Novozymes specifically looks for entrepreneurs in order to benefit from their distinctive outlooks and their tendency to think critically and creatively. This type of diversity balances organizational discourse and activity, and keeps the institution safe. This resultant steadiness may not seem very exciting, but the equilibrium of a well-managed company is far superior to the chaos of periodic fire drills.

So, next time you face a particularly vexing management challenge, think about the successful, hard-working honeybee. You may gain some useful insight into the workings of your own “hive.”

About the Author(s)

Michael O'Malley, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and management consultant who has coached some of the world’s largest companies. He is currently the executive editor for business, economics, and law at Yale University Press and an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School. His most recent book is The Wisdom of Bees: What the Hive Can Teach Business about Leadership, Efficiency, and Growth (Portfolio/Penguin, 2010). He has been an avid beekeeper since 2002.