05/18/2010 12:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ethics in the Hive: The Case for Trust

In my book, The Wisdom of Bees: What the Hive Can Teach Business About Leadership, Efficiency and Growth, I attributed bees' success to many factors that will be familiar to business readers: the bees' strategic orientation toward the future, ability to react quickly to changing environmental circumstances, proactive succession planning, distributed authority, and so on. In retrospect, one thing I did not say enough about in the book but that has as much to do with the colony's success as anything else -- maybe more so -- is the bees presumption of trust. Bees operate as if they the can depend on one another. Free of personal agendas, each individual bee works closely and smoothly without cult of personality, jealousy, or infighting. Three examples illustrate the point.

My first example comes from studies known as the "Lake Experiments." The question addressed in this research is whether forager bees will follow dancers (who communicate the direction and distance of nectar) to an implausible location in the middle of a lake. Specifically, will bees reject the dances of nest mates that signal places that are unlikely to yield food? The short answer is "no:" the bees will still investigate the advertised site on the lake, no matter how unreasonable the location may seem. Why? One explanation is that bees have no reason to suspect their sisters of deceiving them. Given that all members of the hive want the same things, when a bee is advocating for something that will potentially help the colony, why not listen? In business, odd ideas and new ways of looking at problems often are met with suspicion and resistance. Yet the strange and unfamiliar often result in the most innovative and lucrative breakthroughs. An acquired habit of discounting things that are different, then, would be a bad habit indeed.

Second, honeybees do not prematurely close off discourse when presented with facts contrary to their recent experiences. For example, after the bees have fully exploited the nectar of a flower patch, they abandon the patch, checking back periodically to make sure that circumstances have not changed. Later, however, they may observe a scout bee that is directing them back to the very place that they have previously abandoned. Still, the bees do not gaze incredulously at the scout as if to suggest, "We've been to that spot, and there is nothing there," the organizational equivalent to, "We've tried that before, and it doesn't work." What do they do instead? They visit the site to see for themselves, knowing that their prior assessment may no longer apply. Honeybees remain open to the suggestions of others and the possibility that circumstances have changed. Let's face it, what has worked in the past might not under different conditions and what was once tried and failed may be newly applicable. Therefore, a company that neglects the adventurous recommendations of customers and employees may persist in unhealthy activities for too long or fail to act on promising ventures quickly enough.

A third example illustrates the ability of bees to give up on their initial positions and yield to another, better option. This ability is most striking during the bees' swarming process. When hives get too large in numbers, they divest themselves of little less than half their members. The swarm then sends out a couple hundred scout bees to search for a new home. Most scouts return to the swarm without having found a site that satisfies minimum requirements. A dozen or so return with good news. This news is expressed through the bees' dance language. The higher the quality of the site, the more enthusiastic the dance. The ultimate purpose of this dance is to recruit uncommitted scouts to the targeted site for a showing. Scout bees repeatedly return to their chosen sites for additional assessments, but their enthusiasm for each site declines at a relatively fixed rate with each visit. This means that bees' attraction to lower-quality hives extinguishes first, creating the opportunity for them to find and settle on higher-quality spots. In effect, bees may abandon their initial positions and "reset" their commitment levels as they become open to new possibilities. What is most illustrative of this decision process is the trust placed in the independent assessments of evaluators -- to prevent bad decisions from proliferating -- and the willingness of each organizational member to believe that someone else might have something of importance to offer.

These are only a few example, but they amply depict healthy decision processes grounded in what behaviorally looks a lot like trust. Certainly, the ability to consider alternatives presented by others and the willingness to change one's mind based on information that may conflict with previous beliefs has its evolutionary advantages. Flexibility and adaptability come easily for bees since their priority is to the colony above all else -- and they naturally count on the premise of community to guide their actions. Nevertheless, we need not cynically yield to the belief that we are hopelessly flawed creatures who are incapable of quality relations within large enterprises and of the seamless execution of our communal duties. Maybe we should take a lesson from the bees and assume that if we have carefully chosen to bring individuals into our organizations they must be good and that, if they have something to say, they are worth listening to.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.