When bees outgrow their hive  the queen bee doesn’t direct the process of finding a larger place. Instead the bees anticipate the need and the scouts  go in search of a new hive on their own. As each scout bee comes back, they do a specific “bee dance”  – where they wiggle their tail and orient their bodies in the direction to fly – that tells other bees the direction and distance of a possible new hive. At this point those other bees fly off to look at the options. When they come back, they join the particular bee dance that represents the location they think would be a good choice. With wide exploration and lots of vetting, the bees eventually make their decision.  When it’s time to go, the bees swarm and move.

Nature depends on this kind of self-organization. All species and plant life self-organize, and people have this capacity as well. Imagine if our teams worked this way! If they could anticipate a need and seek out solutions on their own,  without direct intervention by a manager?

Unfortunately, our organizations aren’t designed to support or encourage this self-directed activity that supports the larger purpose of the organization. Too many human organizations have micromanagers who think nothing gets done unless they start and direct the entire process from beginning to end. With a micromanager as a boss,  it doesn’t take an employee long to learn that their best option is to wait to be told what to do   In this case, the reward system supports compliance, not initiative. Obviously, this behavior doesn’t support self-organization.

Instead, we need to reward the behavior we want. When I was a faculty member, I wanted to create a classroom where all of us were like the bees. If we were all initiating and organizing our learning individually and sharing it with the class, we would all learn more. Unfortunately, students often train faculty members to micromanage their learning. They ask us how many pages the paper should be, and what they should write about. And because there are 30 students and one faculty member, we give in to their requests for direction.

I chose to base 25% of the students’ grade on their capacity to prove their ability to start and organize their own learning and share it with others in the class. They weren’t writing papers to please me. They were demonstrating their ability to start and organize their own learning. The lesson here is that shifting what we reward can unleash self-organization.  Whether it’s a classroom, a team, or an entire organization.

In our organizations, we need to evaluate our staff on their ability to take initiative in their own work and align their actions with the larger purpose of the organization. We should be recognizing people who do this – not people who are “yes” people,  there to stroke the ego of their positional leader.

Organizations reap what they reward. Sometimes the rewards are subtly designed into their structures and systems. At other times  they are blatant and modeled by positional leaders. When organizations observe what they are rewarding they start down a path of insight. By intentionally seeing the reward processes and structures, they can connect these with the behaviors of their staff. If we want self-organization, like the bees, we have to support that through our supervision, evaluation, promotion  and recognition processes.

Are you interested in learning more about the wiggle (or “waggle”) dance of the bees? Here’s a great video!