Workplace Culture

The Hive Mind at Work

By Michelle Rafter

May. 13, 2010

When Michael O’Malley discusses the hive mind, he’s not speaking figuratively. A social psychologist, Yale University Press editor and longtime beekeeper, O’Malley applied his apiarian knowledge to management practices in The Wisdom of Bees: What the Hive Can Teach Business About Leadership, Efficiency, and Growth. O’Malley spoke recently with Workforce Management contributing editor Michelle V. Rafter about the book.

Workforce Management: A lot of the book pertains to bees’ labor practices. What can HR managers learn from studying how they work?

Michael O’Malley: Beehives foster lifelong development in their workforce, so average tenure and productivity are as high as possible.

WM: Hives have very high bee retention rates, what can companies learn from that to better train and hang on to employees?

O’Malley: Bees have a disciplined career development program. They start with simple tasks inside the hive and work their way to the periphery doing most complex tasks until they become foragers. By contrast, I did a study for a retailer who was replacing every sales associate three times over the course of a year. When that happens, the whole operation shifts to an internal focus, replacing lost workers, instead of external operations, like selling things—or in the hive, gathering nectar.

WM: You call annual performance reviews “loathsome.” What should companies do instead?

O’Malley: Bees are always assessing each other’s productivity. If a bee’s infected and will be detrimental to the hive, they remove it immediately. Organizations can naturally embed reviews into their operations. I recommend using recognition programs to foster ongoing awareness of who’s going a good job. It’s more spontaneous and then it becomes a part of what you do as a manager or supervisor.

WM: Bees don’t have to recruit; they just hatch new workers. What can the hive teach companies about hiring?

O’Malley: Sometimes a colony merges with another hive. If other bees are introduced, they mix the combs from the two hives. There is an enculturation process. In an organization, that enculturation process could be as simple as when a new person’s arriving, some kind of developmental program that makes them feel wanted. That’s probably the most important element, if they’re hired: making them feel like they belong and are wanted.

WM: Sick bees remove themselves from the hive. But bad employees don’t just voluntarily leave. How should companies handle them?

O’Malley: The first line for the colony is to save the bee. The hive doesn’t want to lose workers. Bees give each other a chance. They have a shaking signal that says, “Help me,” and they’ll pull off mites or anything that might be injurious to the bee. In companies, it’s finding the right fit. It’s not that the person is a poor performer; they’re a poor performer in this context, but they have a redeeming value that in the right context can be developed. Barring that, when I ask executives about their mistakes, they routinely say they didn’t remove someone with performance problems quickly enough. Like in the hive, the first instinct is to save and the second is to act.

WM: What can the hive teach companies with multigenerational workforces?

O’Malley: In the hive, older bees serve as mentors to the younger bees. That’s particularly true when they become foragers. Novice bees go into the field with veterans who show them how to navigate better, work a flower better, identify flowers better. When scientists measure nectar intake, they find that as the novice learns from the veteran, they get more efficient in bringing in more nectar per trip.

WM: Happy bees are productive bees. What can companies do so employees stay happy and productive?

O’Malley: Bees are susceptible to stress, and they get stressed when they’re working odd hours, not eating right and working hard. That should sound familiar. One way companies can improve productivity is to manage stress in their organizations. Give people sabbaticals or special projects. Another way is, sound communications about what’s going on so people aren’t thinking the worst. And companies do a pretty good job of wellness programs.

WM: You commend companies like Cisco for following hive-mind philosophies. How can other companies adopt these principles?

O’Malley: Bees protect the future. If conditions are poor, they ratchet up R&D investment through increased exploratory behavior. That’s the opposite of what a lot companies do. During the recession, Cisco maintained internal business development and R&D expenditures, so I gave them credit for protecting their future by continuing to make essential investments. They take hits for that. Analysts complain their earnings aren’t what they could be, but that’s the challenge of a chief executive, to make the company a lasting enterprise.

Workforce Management Online, May 2010Register Now!

Michelle Rafter is a Workforce contributing editor.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with