It was a typical drive home on a Thursday afternoon. I was heading home, navigating through the busy streets on the outskirts of Dubai, listening to the podcast of one of my favourite authors, Ray Dalio. Meanwhile, as I was navigating my way through the cars, I saw an enormous murmuration of hundreds of birds. The vehicles got slower, nearly standstill. Everyone wanted to stop and watch the wonder pass through. That magnificent sight was like a refreshing sip of ice-cold water. You could see the power of nature, inspiring awe and calm in stressed-out people.
As the people in awe started driving again and I was on my way to the long road home, my mind was full of questions. How many birds fly together? How do birds know at what distance they have to fly? What formation would they like to make?
My mind was craving to dig into the magic of nature. I started researching by typing why birds flock together, and I saw more than seventeen million results.
Consequently, skimming through a large amount of data, I found some interesting facts on a national geographic site. Before exploring these interesting details, we need to understand that this magnificent formation results from the independent actions of thousands of birds. They follow three simple rules.
First, don’t get too close to each other.
Second, don’t get too far away from another bird or the centre of the flock.
Third, fly in the same direction and align your head with everyone else.
Recent discoveries about birds’ cognitive abilities have forced scientists to realise that bird and mammal brains have more in common in their function than previously believed. With this in mind, applying the concept of starlings to human behaviour in teams can help us accelerate team dynamics and drive performance to deliver better outcomes.
To understand this concept better, diving deeper into every rule is necessary.
Don’t get too close to each other
Rule number one illustrates understanding and Setting Boundaries. Organisations often use tools like Job Descriptions, competency matrix, RACI (Responsible, Accountable, communicate, Inform) models etc., to clarify the roles and responsibilities of individuals. However, defining jobs is just one aspect, but having healthy personal boundaries means taking responsibility for your actions and emotions in a working relationship.
As Mark Manson writes in his book, “The art of not giving a Fu*k”, “People with strong boundaries understand that it’s unreasonable to expect two people to accommodate each other 100 per cent and fulfil every need the other has. People with strong boundaries understand that a healthy relationship is not about controlling one another’s emotions, but rather about each partner supporting the other in their individual growth and solving their problems.” At work, having healthy boundaries means taking responsibility for your work and results—and working in a way that helps others solve their problems.
Don’t get too far away from the centre of the flock
In fact, HBR Research data establishes that Individual reasoning and talent contribute far less to team success than how they communicate with each other. All Organisations, just like families, have a common language of communication. The way people answer phones, respond to emails, and greet each other in the hallway. These nudges of tone, facial expression and body language are the subtle indicators of what is acceptable. These cues create a sense of pride, inclusivity, and oneness. Well-communicating teams follow three simple protocols.
One all members of the team talk and listen in roughly equal measure.
Two, members talk to each other directly- not just with the team leader; the focus is completing the work, not establishing individual superiority.
Three, members carry on side conversations within the team; they take the initiative and propose new ideas.
Fly in the same direction
Teams require a clear purpose and a sense of order. The HBR article the secret of great teamwork highlights, “The foundation of every great team is a direction that energises, orients, and engages its members. Leaders cannot inspire teams if they don’t know what they’re working towards and don’t have explicit goals.” In addition to that a collective understanding that there are no solo winners. People take accountability for each other’s actions, celebrate wins, and accommodate concerns.
At the same time, teams develop leadership, momentum, and commitment by working to shape a meaningful purpose. Also, research from Josh Bersin shows that the highest-performing companies reward people for team goals, not just individual goals. Ultimately, three behaviours of teams with clear direction are;
One, team members have common objectives
Two, each person understands how they contribute to broader objectives
Three, rewards are attached to team achievements.
Reasonable Goal setting is just the beginning. Continuous monitoring, feedback, and adjustment are required on an ongoing basis.
Birds have evolved bones as strong as those of other species but much lighter; It takes simplicity and clarity to stay light. With this in mind, there is much to learn about team collaboration from the simplicity of these tiny creatures. Altogether, here is a three-step checklist for developing winning teams;
One Identifies and Sets boundaries. Maintain decorum by watching your behaviour, keeping your emotions in check, and finally giving the other team members space to do the same.
Two, stay at the centre of the flock. To create an inclusive culture, cultivate a common language of communication.
Three, fly in the same direction. Create a sense of purpose by creating momentum through the visibility of goals and small wins.
In addition to the above, birds have another exceptional capacity that helps them have tiny but intelligent brains. They can generate new neurons when needed and shed them when no longer necessary. Similarly, teams’ intelligence lies in learning, unlearning and relearning at a consistent pace.
It’s time to embrace the lessons from these tiny birds and create a great murmuration of star teams.