Editor's Note: Today's Cafe Classic was first published on November 15, 2011. This post has always been a favorite of mine, not just for the surprising beauty of the featured video but for the way Derek Irvine uses it -- and the supporting scientific explanation of the phenomenon shown -- so brilliantly to make his critical point about recognition as a tool for synchronization.
Take it away, Derek!
Have you seen this viral video of a starling “murmuration?”
Filmed on the River Shannon in my home country of Ireland, two independent filmmakers captured thousands – yes, thousands – of starlings moving in unison across the sky. Creating beautiful abstract images as they twist and turn, never once do individual birds bump into each other, even when patterns flow and merge together.
How is this possible? The science tells us:
“Starling flocks, it turns out, are best described with equations of “critical transitions” — systems that are poised to tip, to be almost instantly and completely transformed, like metals becoming magnetized or liquid turning to gas. Each starling in a flock is connected to every other. When a flock turns in unison, it’s a phase transition.
“At the individual level, the rules guiding this are relatively simple. When a neighbor moves, so do you. Depending on the flock’s size and speed and its members’ flight physiologies, the large-scale pattern changes.”
Think about that. Each starling is so in tune with its immediate neighbors, the entire flock – of thousands – moves in unison. How in tune are you with your teammates – your neighbors – at work? How in tune do you think teams and departments are organization wide? Do you know intimately what your colleague is doing so you can move in unison with him or her?
How does this apply to the workplace?
That kind of synchronized movement in the workplace requires us to lift our heads out of our own work to notice and appreciate the important contributions and efforts of those around us. It requires deep relationships of trust and accountability between team members.
Building those kinds of relationships has become more difficult as teams have become far more distributed in today’s global workplace. Employee recognition can play a powerful role in helping to build those relationships, but only if we abandon the traditional form of manager-to-employee recognition given infrequently to the elite employees only.
Instead we should encourage all employees to notice and appreciate the efforts of their colleagues through true peer-to-peer recognition – laterally as well as up and down the chain of management. Such recognition from peers, frequently given in a timely way, lets colleagues know you their efforts are valuable to the team as whole. In the most positive way possible, you’ve powerfully communicated what is important to you personally as well as to the group as a whole (the flock, if you will).
Can you picture your team or organization moving as one as this starling murmuration does? What do you think makes it possible?
As Globoforce’s Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting, Derek Irvine is an internationally minded management professional with over 20 years of experience helping global companies set a higher ambition for global strategic employee recognition, leading workshops, strategy meetings and industry sessions around the world. He is the co-author of "The Power of Thanks" and his articles on fostering and managing a culture of appreciation through strategic recognition have been published in Businessweek, Workspan and HR Management. Derek splits his time between Dublin and Boston. Follow Derek on Twitter at @DerekIrvine.