Do bees have workplace morale issues?

August 22, 2007

About a month ago I was meeting with a small project team I am working with and one of the team members mentioned an interesting National Geographic article they had read on swarming behaviour. Since I have been talking about complexity for many months with this group (we worked together on another project last year that used CE methods) we very much engaged in trying to understand the key points of this article. For those who have not read (or will not have the time to read) the article, it basically explains how the patterns of self-organization in bees or ants can result in the entire population as a whole doing amazing things without having any one agent (ant or bee) in control. We discussed this as it might relate to hierarchies in companies and the possibility that departments in companies might run just as well with the same concept – namely no central authority or concentration of control. I don’t believe this since there are fundamental differences between ants or bees and human beings; however I do believe that there are great lessons to be learned from ants or bees that can help leaders navigate complexity. The discussion then led to an interesting concept that perhaps employee morale (good or bad) is an emergent pattern that occurs without any individual employee realizing that they are contributing to the pattern. The other issue that I suggested is that there might be attractor (possibly strange) dynamics at play where the group morale feeds on itself and is difficult to shake. For poor morale, it grips a group or organization like an infection. The same could be said for a good morale (i.e. how often do we say things like ‘her positive attitude is contagious’). Now if individuals in groups engage at the agent level in a way that they cannot see the overall emergent pattern of morale then they can be contributing to either a negative or positive effect without knowing it.

Now narrative offers us a way to generate far greater insights into employee morale. If we collect narrative, in this case workplace stories that occur naturally in work environments, and have individuals index or tag their own stories then we can look for patterns in the meta-data to reveal attractors that are influencing group behaviours and perspectives. Better yet, if you can engage the workforce in some sense-making exercises where they themselves work with the patterns in their own narrative then you are truly combining a diagnostic and an intervention at the same time. I’ll never forget a moment on one project where we were doing sense-making exercises with a group that was looking at their own narrative patterns and one participant said something like “Oh my, we are really mean to each other aren’t we.”

At work we often get caught up in our day to day challenges and we often do not understand how our individual behaviours, perceptions, and attitudes impact our group’s as a whole. As stories are the main propagation and sustaining mechanism for these patterns it makes sense that they can help us understand the complexity and emergent nature of morale. Our attraction to spread stories and gossip contributes to emergent patterns of morale and like bees and ants we are not individually aware how our personal contributions aggregate to yield an emergent effect – positive or negative.

Michael Cheveldave

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