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A Bug’s Life: Working Together for Success

With the current cold weather snap, few self-respecting summer insects will be surfacing above ground for a good many months yet. Bugs!? A bit of a random topic perhaps, but a recent programme got me thinking about the qualities of ants, and in some ways we could learn a lot from them.

Ants are hardy souls. We’re not talking Ant and Dec of “I’m a Celebrity..” fame here by the way, but ants who are members of the family Formicidae. Despite their diminutive size, ants are rather amazing. They have incredible strength. Popeye would sob with jealousy at their ability to lift items three times their size. They are also very good problem solvers and team workers. Last year there was a story about a group of Indian ants who linked themselves together to form a bridge so that other ants in their colony could travel onwards after their route was blocked. The gap the ants bridged was several times the length of their individual bodies, but by climbing on top of each other, stretching out as far as possible and biting the feet and antennae of the ant across from them, they were able to create a sturdy crossing that enabled their fellow workers to carry food, nest-building materials and smaller ants safely across to the other side.

In an experiment carried out by the Georgia Institute of Technology the same thing happened. 8,000 fire ants were scooped up, swirled about so they formed a ball and decanted into a tray of water. Over the next three minutes, the ball of ants slowly widened and flattened into a raft. By trapping air bubbles trapped among their interlocking bodies, the ants boosted their natural ability to repel water and kept themselves afloat by holding onto each other.

You couldn’t really imagine a group of people doing that could you? The ants’ ability to work together, focussing on the requirements of the team makes them very effective at achieving their aims.

An organisation won’t function if a group of people do things individually, but not harnessing each other’s strengths. Productive and successful companies usually have people working together effectively in teams to achieve the organisation’s objectives and goals. Unlike ants, humans tend to be somewhat self-centric. Employees who work solely for their own benefit won’t (and don’t) stick it for very long in any organisation. They don’t get on well with co-workers and often see any kind of reasonable management request as an extortionate demand. This type of behaviour is detrimental to the business and has a negative effect on other employees.

Some people love working in a team, and look for jobs that allow them to do such that. Others are more independent, and find working within a team a difficult concept to grasp especially when personalities clash. The continuing economic squeeze means that many organisations face restructuring and downsizing because of lack of money and funding. In these circumstances that jobs will be subject to change - meaning that even if working within a team was not a requirement of an employee before, it could well be in the future.

If you want to build a group of people into a team, work through the following points.

  • Explain the long-range aims of the team and regularly remind the team members of them.
  • Outline the responsibilities of everyone on the team.
  • Set goals and share information.
  • Be trustworthy and dependable.
  • Challenge each team member to participate and contribute. Arrange for them to receive training if appropriate. Build flexibility and skills by changing people's responsibilities from time to time. Acknowledge each individual's strengths and offer positive reinforcement. Consider all suggestions fully and respond to the individual or entire team, whichever is more appropriate.
  • Celebrate achievements together. Reward the team, not individuals. Be enthusiastic and have some fun together as a team. They say the family that plays together stays together. Well, it’s true of workplace teams too.
  • Say what needs to be done, check that they understand, see if they need any resources (and provide them if needed),then let them get on with it. Trust the individuals and the team as a whole to complete their tasks correctly and on time.
  • Running on from the last point, avoid micromanaging. Theodore Roosevelt said: "The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it." That’s absolutely true (though of course one must insert “..and women..” to the quote!).

Business results are increasingly aligned to the success of employee’s communication, and collaboration. For some organisations, encouraging people to participate in a team activity won’t be a problem at all, but for others it might be a little more difficult. If this is the case, like ants, it’s about taking on the challenge in bite sized chunks. An organisation is only as good as the people who work within it.

If you want to create better work performance in your team, get in touch.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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