Take a lesson from the bees

Have you ever run into someone who was dotty about an arcane topic that you couldn’t have imagined caring about before his knowledge and delightful conversation won you over?  That’s what it’s like to read Honeybee Democracy, the 2010 book by entomologist Thomas Seeley.  Seeley has been observing bees for forty years, and he’s discovered that they make complicated decisions (like where to locate their next hive) collectively.   Their specialized knowledge, persuasive communications, and willingness to follow the best solution once it’s endorsed by enough bees would put Congress to shame.  Honeybee Democracy is a painless introduction to the scientific method and to animal behavior, but the real pay-off comes from Professor Seeley’s tips on leadership.

As Cornell’s department head for Neurobiology and Behavior, Seeley applies  “swarm smarts” in faculty meetings.   He’s found parallels between bees and the traditional New England town meeting, including:

  1. Compose decision-making groups of individuals with shared interests and mutual respect.  Reminding individuals at the outset of the large stake they each have in the welfare of the group’s outcome keeps debate moving forward without igniting tempers or personal agendas.
  2. Minimize the leader’s influence on the group’s thinking.  By asking leaders to impartially facilitate the group’s dialogue rather than forcing their own opinion, the group can access the sum of their knowledge and develop a wider range of potential actions.
  3. Seek diverse solutions to the problem.  By making it safe for numerous, diverse, and independent people to do independent research prior to meeting and then to express their opinions, the chances are high that someone will come up with a radically new option.
  4. Aggregate the group’s knowledge through debate.  Civility and safety doesn’t mean groupthink.  Honeybee “scouts” debate the merits of various hive sites vigorously, seeking supporters until one group gains a quorum.  Each scout decides individually whether and how actively to advertise a potential site by waggling before the other bees.  No bee blindly accepts another’s recommendation; the dance’s purpose is to recruit other bees to independently travel to the site and verify the scout’s claims.  To take a lesson from the bees, human leaders providing for open, fair, and frank debate can integrate different solutions while continuing to register their individual opinions independently.
  5. Use quorum responses for cohesion, accuracy, and speed.  Once a critical mass of bees have determined the best hive site, other bees rapidly coalesce around the solution.  Humans can take test votes by secret ballot that efficiently reveal the mind of the group and determine whether additional discussion is needed.

As makers of honey and beeswax, Seeley praises honeybees as conveyors of sweetness and light.  Take a lesson from the bees the next time you need to get a good decision from a group.


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