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On Building A Hive Mentality – And Jonathan Haidt

April 12, 2012

Jonathan Haidt’s latest work The Righteous Mind is a serious piece of heavy reading in every way. The hardback thumped into my briefcase at a sturdy 702 grams. And its 321 pages of erudite thinking is backed up by a further 51 pages of notes plus 17 pages of detailed index.  Its sections and sub-headings are seriously crisp and the arguments are summarised and presented as ‘Exhibits’ – to give the book the kind of gravitas that would suit a judge’s chambers. And to be fair, the subject matter and the quality of the work suits it.

Collaborating - As Busy As Bees

The sub-title of Haidt’s book is ‘Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion’ gives it away – this is some serious stuff and full of the contentious topics normally banned by the landlord of most bars. But despite the intimidating look and feel of the tome – Haidt’s work deserves a wide audience as his fascinating insights apply to anyone interested in politics, society, how people work together. And his recent talk at The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (The RSA) in London suggested that collaborations and cohesive activity is not just smart management – it may just be the way humans have evolved to  survive…

Haidt is described as a ‘social and cultural psychologist’ and as well as being on the faculty of University of Virginia he is also a professor of business ethics at the Stern School of Business in New York. Whilst his latest work primarily explores how people develop different morals and political beliefs his insights into group behaviour, explaining how we form communities – and why we work together is relevant for anyone interested in how to get teams to collaborate – and innovate.

Collaborative Links To Innovation

The link between collaboration and innovation is certainly a hot topic. General Electric’s Innovation Barometer highlighted a Partnership Paradox; organisations acknowledge they need partners to innovate – but they don’t create the environment to build them. Cap Gemini reported that 84% of CEO’s they surveyed in 2011 saw collaboration as the key to innovation. And last year Forrester Research revealed that 33% of marketers saw innovation as being blocked by poor internal collaboration – and 30% said it was poor external collaboration that was the problem. Morten T Hansen in his excellent book ‘Collaboration’ points out that ‘most leaders believe that company wide collaboration is essential for successful strategy execution’ – and Rosabeth Moss-Kanter in her classic essay ‘Innovation The Classic Traps’ – says; “Established Companies can avoid falling into traps that stifle innovation by widening the search for new ideas, loosening tight controls, forging better connections and cultivating communication and collaboration skills”

There is a common word here. Collaboration. And the common failure is more than often – a lack of it. Poor collaboration skills are bad news for business and so Haidt’s take on the subject of how and why humans work together in groups is particularly relevant. Whilst our genes may relate us to the great apes a lot of effective human behaviour has more in common with the insect world. Haidt calls it a ‘hive mentality’. We benefit more by working and protecting each other. Individualism is important and needed – but smart people have always got together in tribes and in the long run, it is they who prosper best. Charles Darwin (a big influence on Haidt) was right – “In the long history of humankind – those who have learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

Corporation As Super Organism

Haidt views Corporations as powerful ‘super organisms’ – where individuals are brought together to take on gigantic tasks. This requires coordination and cohesion and yet often executives revert to Transactional Leadership, with a focus on managing the individual with rewards and punishments. Haidt shows this has its limits. He says; “Self-interested employees are far more interested in looking good and getting promoted than in helping the company”. Instead, if we want to build a collaborative, creative and dynamic environment – we need Transformational Leadership.  As Haidt explains;

“An organisation that takes advantage of our hivish nature can activate pride, loyalty and enthusiasm amongst employees and monitor them less closely. The bonds of trust mean more gets done at a lower cost than in other firms. Hivish employees work harder, have more fun and are less likely to quit… they are team players.”

 Build A Cohesive Mentality

Haidt recommends the kind of management tactics that can help build this kind of strong, cohesive culture. Firstly, you need to create a culture that emphasises similarities, shared goals and interdependencies.  Secondly, he suggests synchronous behaviour – more aligned physical behaviour, perhaps socialising or sports. Thirdly – you can build intra-business rivalries between teams but not individual competitions.  He also refers to the work of the economist Elinor Ostrom – and points out that successful groups require strong group identity, consensus, consistency, autonomy and fast resolution of conflicts.

Whilst this structural design can help encourage a more cohesive culture – it is still the communication skills of the individuals involved that will dictate if collaboration thrives or falls away. And in my work on CollaborativeEdge recently the importance of personal awareness and communication has been the focus. A strong personal network and effective relationship management skills may be the only unique career advantage people have – and yet as a rule there is a huge lack of self awareness, communication and leadership conversation skills. We need ‘T-Shaped’ people – those with technical knowledge who can stretch and link that across the business. It is these T-shaped people who can collaborate – and through that, in turn, they can inspire fresh ideas and insights.

Collaboration and innovation is not easy. It challenges companies as successful as Nokia and Sony to build effective internal synergies across their complex organisations. Collaboration requires a shared vision, united purpose and a discipline – and the flexibility to allow people to engage informally too. At its heart it needs individuals who are willing to listen, to share – and to build something new and successful peer to peer communication across the group is critical. As Theodore Zeldin says “ A conversation doesn’t just shuffle the deck of cards  – it creates new ones.”

Thanks to Jonathan Haidt and The RSA.

For further articles on partnerships, innovation and collaboration please see www.andrewamour.com  and visit www.benchstone.co.uk for more details on The CollaborativeEdge, consulting and coaching.

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