• Derrek Ehrlich

Unitary Democracies at Work

Did you know that #honeybees make all of their decisions democratically? It's a common misconception that the queen honeybee controls what happens and makes all the decisions for the hive. The only thing she really does is lay eggs. So it is true that the hive would not survive without her, but she doesn't make or influence hive decisions.


Still, a honeybee hive does in fact act as a superorganism. Just as the human body operates as a single, fully integrated entity, honeybees operate as a single, coherent whole even though they are simply a vast number of individual bees. Human groups are able to achieve this "superorganism" state of cohesion and decision-making, too. More on that soon, but first let's dig a little deeper into how a honeybee hive operates.


I'd like to briefly share a few of the supernatural abilities honeybee colonies have:

  • Colonial Temperature Regulation - Year round, a colony can keep the internal hive temperature between 93 to 96 °F (34 to 36 °C) while the ambient air temperature may fluctuate between -20 to 120 °F (-30 to 50 °C).

  • Colonial Breathing - Colonies can limit the buildup of CO₂ by increasing hive ventilation when levels reach a certain threshold.

  • Colonial Circulation - Colonies keep the heat-producing honeybees at the center properly fueled with honey carried in by other bees on the edges of the hive.

  • Colonial Fever Response - If a colony suffers a fungal infection, they can collectively elevate the hive's temperature to fight the infection.

  • Colonial Home Selection - When a honeybee hive splits (due to a new queen being born), colonies scour the region for suitable new homes and ultimately vote on which site offers the best chance for their survival.

Ultimately, these abilities boil down to the fact that honeybee colonies make decisions as a #unitarydemocracy. Let's take a closer look at how this decision process looks.



Decision Making

Honeybees practice a form of democracy known as "Direct Democracy," which means that the individuals of the community participate directly in the decision-making process rather than through representatives. Imagine a New England town meeting where people from the community gather at the town center and debate and vote on local issues. This is fundamentally how honeybees operate.


There is a key difference between a town of people and a colony of honeybees when it comes to how they make their decisions, though.

In human groups, it's common for groups to end a democratic process with its members strongly divided. At this point, some rule must be invoked to translate split opinions into a single choice. This kind of group #decisionmaking arises from individuals that have conflicting goals and different preferences is known as an "Adversary Democracy."


In contrast, honeybee colonies make group decisions based on its individuals having aligned goals (choose the best homesite) and shared preferences (home size, location, etc.). This is known as a "Unitary Democracy."


Adversary democracies feel natural in a country like the US. Everyone has different goals and preferences, like where they want to live, how they want to live, how taxes are spent, the role of our government and much more. Plus, in a nation, we don't have much control over the standard of entry or what values are reinforced. But in a company, we are able to control who is hired, who is fired, what our #values are, and what we choose to reinforce.


Keep in mind, a unitary democracy doesn't imply #groupthink, but rather that individuals come up with competing ideas and paths to take with the same destination in mind. #Dissent and individuality can be, and should be, encouraged in a unitary democracy.


With that said, I think it's clear that a unitary democracy is able to more easily progress towards a goal (bringing everyone towards an agreed upon goal) than an adversary democracy (leaving a dissenting portion behind). So that begs the question: Can businesses create an environment that sustains a unitary democracy?


Creating a Unitary Democracy at Work

To answer that question, let's break apart the two ways that unitary and adversary democracies differ: shared versus adverse #goals and #preferences.


First thing's first, let's make sure we're on the same page about the definitions of goals and preferences:

  1. Goals: This refers to the long-term plans of any group. For example, a goal may be "to find the best home."

  2. Preferences: This refers to the meaning of the respective goal. If we want to live in the "best" home, what does "best" imply? Is it the biggest, nicest, or with the ideal location? If half the group thinks that best equals biggest, and another half thinks best equals nicest, this will, of course, propagate the heavy division of an adversary democracy.



Goals in a Unity Democracy:

The ability to create goals and milestones that the entire group agrees with is certainly something a business can do. In fact, this is something most businesses attempt to do already. The common gaps I've observed are two specific things: 1) businesses don't take the time to explain and connect short-term and long-term goals and 2) businesses focus on too short-term goals or don't provide long-term clarity.


Elaborating on point (1), it's important for each person to understand how the short-term goals connect to the long-term ones. From personal experience, I know that if I don't understand the connection between what we're doing today and what we say we want to do tomorrow, I disengage and lose trust in the long-term lip service, lose my ability to feel like I have influence over the future of the group, and accountability for my contributions deteriorate. This is a common feeling among rank and file employees and the primary reason why businesses should genuinely spend the time connecting the short- and long-term.


Elaborating on point (2), it takes time to connect goals across large groups of individuals. If we maintain a string of near-sighted goals, we don't give the whole organization a chance to adapt and it leads to people feeling like they're jumping on a hamster wheel day after day. The continuity of the work becomes unclear and meaning is lost.


Sure, there are a couple of common issues, but these are issues any business can overcome, so it's safe to say we can achieve a state of shared goals.



Preferences in a Unitary Democracy:

Preferences do become a little harder to pin down than goals, so let's use an example to illustrate how preferences work:

Imagine you work for an energy company that wants to ensure everyone in a country has access to affordable electricity. This is an admirable goal and one that many people would get behind. But what if you wanted to achieve this through the use of fossil fuels? Part of the group may believe the end-goal is worth using fossil fuels, where another part of the group may adamantly believe that green energy should be used. The group has different preferences.


So how can a business avoid adversing preferences? Most simply through strong values that are consistently reinforced. Values are something many companies have, but they are rarely, effectively, reinforced. The idea here is to put together a group of people with more-or-less similar preferences. This takes genuine intent and active reinforcement.


I'll dig more into reinforcing values in a later blog post, as that topic deserves its own attention. But regardless, this is something many companies currently do, so we can see it is possible.



After taking a moment to break down the components of a unitary democracy, it's clear it's something that can definitely be achieved in a modern business. So yes, businesses can act as a unitary democracy.


But there's one additional component that wasn't discussed. That is the requirement that no one in a given group can be in a state of #selfpreservation if the group wants to be in a unitary democracy. It is not possible to get people moving in perfect cohesion towards a goal when some of them are looking out for themselves over the group.


Fortunately, #OneHive has a program with one of its main objectives being moving individuals from a state of self-preservation to a state of group-preservation. Our program Elevate Workplace Culture tackles this problem (and others) head-on. You're welcome to check out that link and learn more or schedule a free consultation with us.


Please share any thoughts or questions about this piece, or other topics you'd like to hear about, on our social posts!


Reference: The main source of factual information in this article came from the book "Honeybee Democracy" by Thomas D Seeley. Learn more about that book here.


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