Changing Minds: How Honeybees Lead Teams

Have you ever observed yourself changing your mind about something? What makes you decide to reverse direction? It’s worth thinking about and finding out what triggers you, no?

The way you’ve experienced your own reversals can inform you about how others change their minds.

Here’s a story about honeybees I find fascinating. It’s from Stephen Denning’s book, The Secret Language of Leadership.

People change their minds in three ways:

  1. By experience
  2. By observation
  3. By symbolic learning

So do honeybees. They follow the same three learning patterns as human beings.

1. Bees learn by experience. A single bee will visit different flowers and if there is reward, it will make more visits to that type of flower for most of the day.

2. Bees learn by observation. Scientists have shown that bees will enter a simple maze with a choice of two paths. One path, which leads to food, is marked with a particular color at the entrance and along the way. The other path, the one not leading to food, is marked with a different color. The bees will learn to choose the correct path and update their knowledge when there is a change.

3. Bees also learn by symbolic communication. That is, they can communicate what they’ve learned about a source of food and tell other bees. They do so by doing the waggle-dance. The nectar-laden bee returns to the honeycomb and does a dance in a circular pattern, then crosses the circle in a zigzag or waggle motion.

This was first observed by Aristotle in his History of Animals in 330 B.C., and more recently by Karl von Frisch. Von Frisch was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973 for his work showing that the runs and turns of the dance were correlated to the distance and direction of the food source from the hive.

A bee returning to the hive lets the others know where to go to find good food.

Pretty amazing when you think about it. Human beings don’t have to go through the waggle dance to communicate learning. We have language. We have strong, emotional language.

The impact of an idea communicated symbolically is never as powerful as direct experience. But we don’t have to actually experience real-life events to learn from them.

The tragedy of 9/11 changed the way people viewed terrorism, in the same way that Pearl Harbor in 1941 changed the way that the US viewed the threat of Japan and the ongoing World War. The economic crises of these past few years is causing us to change our minds about the appropriate use of regulations.

We can communicate through the power of stories to get people to change their minds. What stories have made an impact in your life, causing you to change your mind, your career, your direction? It’s worth thinking about, no?

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