How to Manage Like a Queen Bee

Last Updated May 7, 2010 9:06 AM EDT

If you've ever wanted greater productivity from your team, you'd be wise to emulate and encourage the habits of bees, says Columbia Business School professor Michael O'Malley. In his new book, The Wisdom of Bees, O'Malley, who is also an avid beekeeper, argues that these humble insects have much to teach us. As far-fetched as it may sound, O'Malley makes a good case. I recently talked to him about the queen bee's management style, the dangers of overworking employees, and the ways in which bees differ from sub-prime lenders.
Michael O'Malley
BNET: Can humans really learn anything from bugs?

O'Malley: Bees have two notable qualities that make them worth considering: they communicate and they think. They are complex critters with amazing intellectual capacities. The hive behaves like a miniature but incredibly successful business.

BNET: What misconceptions do we have about the way the hive operates?

O'Malley: It's an empowered organization. People often think the queen bee controls everything. While she's the genetic heart and sole of the hive, she's by no means the only leader. Other bees act as supervisors who initiate activities, such as where to forage for nectar. The queen couldn't possibly direct all the actions in the field from her command post -- certain other bees are simply in a better position to assess the needs of the colony at any given moment. So, she does what every good leader does: she delegates.

BNET: Are there other ways that the hive ensures productivity?

O'Malley: There are many. For example, bees are careful to preserve their energy as they hunt for and harvest resources. Like the treads on tires, their wings don't last forever. So, they pace themselves. If two otherwise equal food sources are located at different distances from the hive, they'll factor that into their decision-making. They'll choose densely clustered flowers over those that are farther apart.

BNET: What's the takeaway for humans?

O'Malley: Businesses can't expect employees to run back-to-back miles and also expect that the company will maintain the same level of productivity. This is especially true today as companies make staff cuts and fail to reorganize to reflect the increased demands being placed on workers. People get worn out -- when you need them they'll be depleted.

BNET: Are bees more likely to think long-term than managers?

O'Malley: Yes. Bees are not short-term maximizers. The entire hive doesn't rush out to exploit one flower patch when a particularly lucrative vein of nectar is discovered. Bees know that eventually that source will be depleted and they'll be forced to reallocate resources elsewhere. They need to know where those other sites are, and have established operations there. Bees avoid all-or-none scenarios at all costs.

BNET: Is that your advice for managers as well?

O'Malley: The best way to ensure that there will be a short run is to focus on the long run. It's a lesson for executives who feel enslaved by quarterly earnings reports. We could ask the subprime lenders and the lineup of insurers, packagers, and distributors of those mortgages if they were thinking of the long term prior to the recent banking crisis.