Bee colonies and behavioural change

 In Change management

Scientists think the secret to bees survival (over 140 million years), is down to the way they organise and work together. We can learn a great deal from bees and apply it to our workplace. 

Without bees, we wouldn’t have flowers, apples, cranberries or broccoli. In fact, quite a lot of our food is dependent upon bees. And they are incredibly fascinating creatures.

Although each bee on its own is interesting, it’s when you look at them as a system that you understand what makes them successful. Bees have a beautiful organisational structure within the colony where every bee knows its role.

However, the colony is a collaboration, and that’s where the behaviours get defined. Working together, bee colonies build and maintain hives, regulate the hive temperature, reproduce and raise young, and collect and store food in the form of honey. A successful beehive is all about the colony, not about the individual. They collaborate brilliantly. 

Dependency and co-operation within the beehive are what makes the system work. The innovative and thriving organisations of today demonstrate similar levels of dependency and co-operation. 





Applying this to organisations 

A successful workplace operates like a hive. It’s all about the workstreams and wider team cooperation.  In order to understand how a bee colony works, you have to look at the groups within the hive. You won’t get any wiser from looking at each individual bee. And this is a lesson we can use for behavioural change. 

A common practice when approaching team development is to deep dive into the individual.  For example, run psychometric tests to see who likes blue days and who likes green. But our lens needs to go the other way – rather than drilling into each person we should pull back and look at the team as a whole.  

As it is for the groups within the beehive, group social norms in the workplace provide the guidebook to employees on how to behave. In organisations, people quickly know what is and isn’t acceptable, and they adopt those group norms over their own preferences. People want to fit in and be part of the group. It’s those guidebooks you need to work on, to create new behaviours and ways of working. 

Our advice…

See the colony not the bee 

Beehive bees

You could study a single bee for 1000 hours and you would learn more if you spent an hour watching the colony. Bees’ behaviour is determined by the colony with all its rules, interactions and norms.

The same is true for organisations. When an employee steps into a group, they adopt that group’s identity. And it’s the group identity that creates each employee’s behavioural guidebook. 

For work teams, everything is about relationships.  Therefore, it’s important to use a wide lens when approaching behaviour change. Although individual psychometrics and personality profiles are useful to get a team to work well together, for team level behavioural change and for creating new norms it’s the group identity that is a greater force. 

Don’t forget the wider ecosystem

Beehives exist as part of a wider ecosystem.  This is particularly relevant for teams striving for innovation and diversity of thought. Remember, bees can’t survive without flowers in their wider eco-system.

Organisations exist as part of a wider ecosystem. This is more important today than it has ever been.  It’s a huge competitive advantage to have that wider network of connections – it adds different thinking.

Just as the bees need flowers – organisations need to build a system around them that will enrich their thinking. 

Why a diverse ecosystem is important

Just like bees, organisations need an outer layer of flowers to create honey. Wider connections enrich their internal culture and intelligence. Organisations must build links to outside thinkers, to people beyond their team and organisations connected to it, through formal or informal networks. 

Organisations that work only within their team boundaries sit in a limited echo chamber of ideas. It is like having no flowers. It doesn’t work. 

The best organisations have found ways to create an ideas ecosystem of flowers and interconnections enabled by collaborative ways of working. Diverse thinking from all sides is allowed in. This is supported by a culture of psychological safety. Such a culture takes work but is well worth the effort.   

Building a richer ecosystem

Many organisations are not set up for cross-team collaboration. Instead, they’re working to a different operating system set for a different era. This is a more constrained way of working not suited to cross-team collaboration.

How do you shift teams to a hive-like mindset and get the benefits of collaboration? 

Firstly, you to approach team development differently, with a new lens. Teams have got comfortable with psychometrics and individual analysis. But for teamwork, you need to change the view to a group level, and how groups work together.

Our identity landscaping sessions help with that. We use a number of techniques derived from the latest research in social identity theory to explore how teams interact. It teaches teams how to see themselves as part of a wider landscape, and to understand the influence groups have on behaviour. 

If you think of your team like a beehive within a wider landscape, you can use placement to see how the parts fit together and relate to each other. For example, if your team was a circle on a piece of paper, which other teams would you draw near it and which teams would be far away? Why? How would all the beehives sit together?  Are they all tight and in one location on your map, or are they really far apart with no connections?

That picture you build pulls out a huge amount of insight for the team. This leads naturally to the next question, which is about the future. What do they want the relationships between teams to look like? Do they want it to look different? The likely answer is yes. 

How we help

At Making Change Happen, we help teams see the wider landscape. Outside eyes allow teams to be smarter, to unearth habits and mindsets that have taken hold and may no longer be fit for purpose. Our approach enables the team to pinpoint and unpick old behaviours before introducing new ones. If you’d like to find out more, download our free identity landscaping guide.

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