Deborah Lewis: Nature’s guide to business improvements

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My friend and mentor Dean Van Leuuwen of consultancy Tomorrow Today uses metaphors of how herds or animal tribes behave in nature to bring to life ideas of how businesses can improve.

There’s two good metaphors for employee engagement. The first are the huge shoals of tiny fish which you find in tropical waters and which apparently simultaneously shift direction instantly at the first sense of danger. I say apparently because in reality they are following a leader. But the response is so quick that they seem to move gracefully as one.

Every business would aspire to be that shoal, I think. And any leader should think of that model when they ponder the issue of employee engagement. How many organisations can say that their employees are so bought into a single purpose that they immediately grasp and respond to the need for change?

The other more predictable model is the beehive. Now scientists have examined the very complex operations of a beehive and presented them as a strongly structured and hierarchical model. In somewhat Orwellian fashion there is a ‘queen’ and ‘workers’. These words are very loaded and create all kinds of intimations of deference, control, subordination.

But that’s how people look at a beehive. Is that how the bees see the hive? Perhaps. Who can tell? However, once again, here is nature operating ‘corporately’ for the survival and well-being of the group. Each member of the group, or tribe, knows its part and plays its part, consistently and unquestioningly. The good of the whole is identified with the well-being of each individual.

And this is perhaps the point of these two naturally ‘corporate’ models. Each fish, every bee, inherently understands that it is stronger by being part of a group of others, all responding together to external factors, everyone with a role and purpose.

Two funny thoughts spring to mind. The first is the notion of ‘rebel’ bees and fish – unimaginable. The second is that of course, bees and fish are our very, very distant evolutionary relatives.

If I then think about the groupings of those creatures who are closer to us in their genetic code, such as apes and mammals in general, behaviours start to resemble more closely traditional corporate attitudes. The confrontational stance as males fight for supremacy. The expulsion of previous leaders as a new buck assumes the head of the tribe.

Could it be that what makes the beehive such a flat, harmonious, absolutely engaged group of workers is the fact that they are lead by a female?

Now that’s a controversial question. I don’t really want to go into this, as I don’t think there is sufficient evidence around the differences between businesses run by men and women to provide a sensible response.

However, I do think there is an important lesson to be learnt from the bees and from the fish. If employee engagement is to lead to positive and consistent action from a member of the team, then fundamentally, that person must identify their well-being with the good of the company as a whole.

Just like the fish follow the lead when it’s time to change because they know they will be safer if they do so, so it seems to me employees need to understand how the direction of the business, and changes to the direction of the business, will benefit them directly.

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About Deborah Lewis

Deborah Lewis: PR and engagement expert

Deborah’s 20 year career has been focused on helping businesses with complex messages, often operating in challenging and commoditised sectors. From tissues to chocolate, from software engineering to change management consulting, Deborah’s skill lies in assisting management in identifying the right voice for the business and defining strong and compelling stories which will resonate across audiences.

An entrepreneur, Deborah set up a PR consultancy in 2007 which became one of the largest corporate and business to business independents in the UK, with a reputation for high quality and customer care, and achieving results where other agencies had failed.

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2 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head in explaining that the role of technology is a supporting one. It goes without saying that engagement first and foremost, involves human interaction and an open, honest relationship with clear lines of communication.

    Having the right technology to use though can be a hugely useful resource for line mangers, employees and HR practitioners alike. Being able to set out clear objectives that are aligned to management and company-wide goals allows an employee to better undertsand their role, what’s expected of them and the wider goals of the organisation, which has been shown to increase engagement.

    But you’re absolutely right – engagement is essentially about people. This research may be of interest – it details the essential role played by line managers in engaging employees

  2. There is one fundamental golden rule for staff engagement initiatives: engagement is felt by staff and cannot be ‘done to them’

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