Straight from the Hive: A Lesson in Teamwork

Teamwork. It’s a word we all know, but it’s not always the easiest practice to implement or do well. As humans, our first instinct is to think of the self. We want what’s best for us, rather than having to sacrifice what we want for the needs of the team. Without teamwork, though, both nonprofits and huge corporations would not be where they are today. However, you may be surprised to learn that the world’s leading teamwork expert is a honeybee, not a human. For thousands of years, bees have perfected the art of organized teamwork. As social insects, honeybees are highly evolved and perform a variety of complex tasks in order live together successfully.

Now you may be thinking, what in the world can I learn from an insect? From mission, to delegation, to training, a lot can be learned about running a business from the bees. We’ll start with mission. The plan of virtually any company should be to grow sustainably, and without a clear mission, your team won’t know what they’re working for. Honeybees know what their goal is: to multiply and sustain their hive. Usually, your mission statement should be simple. It will succinctly sum up the values of the company. The hard part, however, is forming a plan to carry out that mission statement. The bees give us a 4-step plan: build, protect, sustain, and reproduce. Notice that sustainment and reproduction come last. Many companies want to jump into growth, but it is essential to protect what you already have first.

Next up is team building. It is crucial that every individual on a team know his or her role. While everyone is working towards the same cause, each person will have their own specific tasks. This lessens confusion and keeps the whole team operating smoothly. The honeybee does this amazingly well. The three main categories of bees are queens, drones and workers. The queen is in charge and lays all the eggs that will later hatch. The drone mates with the queen and, get this, DIES in the process. Typically, no one is going to ask you to die in the office, but the point is sacrifice. Sometimes, individual wants have to be sacrificed for the success of the team. Finally, there is the worker bee. These bees make up the majority of the hive and are skilled at performing all of the labor requirements. It is clear that the bees have a hierarchy, and teams should also. This is not to say that one person is more important than the next, as each team member is essential, but that teams do need a structure and a leader.

Thirdly, bees excel at training and replacement, another important aspect in teamwork. For a couple of reasons, employees should be trained in doing several tasks. One reason is job satisfaction.People need to be at least somewhat fulfilled by the work they are doing, otherwise they will become bitter, which is toxic for the rest of the team. By knowing how to operate in a couple of different areas at work, employees are happier and more flexible, which are great qualities to possess. Another reason is for replacement. Team members can quit unexpectedly and it can be dangerous to become too dependent on one individual to meet certain needs. Honeybees do this in a very smooth system of inside and outside workers. They stay in sync to have an even amount of each, and if a large portion of the outside workers die off, the inside workers will replace them to keep the system running smoothly.

Lastly, we loop back to protection of the hive, as was mentioned earlier as the second step of the plan. Just like a hive, your organization needs to defend itself against outside enemies and competitors. While the work of bees produces the sweetest honey (and hopefully your team produces sweet results as well), their sting is no less painful. While I’m not recommending physically attacking your competitors, the point is you have to guard what your team has produced. Be proud of it and protect it from the outside world. It is the job of every team member to keep their guard up and make sure no one steals the ideas they’ve created.

As you can see, there are many lessons to be taken from the insect world to the workplace. Always remember to have a clear mission that you convey to your team, assign individual directives, train in multiple areas and keep an eye on your competition. While the perfect team is a myth, applying some of these steps can greatly help to remove stress and promote camaraderie.