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Nature's other lesson - how teamwork and kindness are the heart of change


Maternity leave affords a real shift in perspective, that’s for sure. What has surprised me most, on coming back, is not how much the business world has changed, but how much it’s business as usual.


Our world is changing rapidly.


We’re facing a number of forces which are affecting the way we live and work, and yet there often seems to be a disconnect between the world of work and the world around us. It’s a shame, because when it comes to the big questions of organising ourselves effectively and adapting to changing circumstances, business has a great deal of wisdom and expertise to impart.


Kindness and collaboration


When we take business lessons from nature, we focus perhaps too much on competitive advantage, and not enough on the myriad examples of co-operation and collaboration we find there. Business has great power to enact social change, but only if profit and power are not perceived to be in opposition to kindness and collaboration.


The relationships between individual benefits and group collaboration are obscure and multivalent. Professor David Sloan Wilson conducted research with schoolchildren in Binghamton, USA on the verge of dropping out. He designed a study which praised good performance, helped students to think about how they liked to learn and offered incentives for co-operation and learning. Not only did the students show more so-called ‘prosocial’ behaviours, but their grades improved dramatically.


Most scientists are of the view that prosocial behaviours such as kindness evolved (like other characteristics) because they were necessary for survival, and that rapid change within a generation is adaptation, not evolution. But the end result is the same. We understand that we have the capacity to shape and alter our own thinking and behaviour. And increasingly, we are realising that we have to collaborate effectively, and with greater ingenuity, to address the challenges we face.


Starting small and thinking big


When change feels too big, we become overwhelmed. And instigating and sustaining cultural change is a huge challenge. But when we operate at a team or group level, things begin to feel possible. We build relationships. We take on responsibilities. We hold each other accountable. We celebrate diversity instead of fearing difference. We stop asking, “What do I need?” and start asking, “What can I do?”


This mindset is what first piqued my interest in Belbin. Whereas a lot of tools start with the individual, Belbin begins with the team as an organism in its own right. Our business grew from observing real teams in action: collaborating, making decisions, resolving conflicts and moving forward together.


But collaboration isn’t enough – we need diversity and inclusion, another central tenet of Belbin Team Role theory. Dissenting voices are the tapestry of team conscience. They’re our guard against ‘more of the same’ – intransigence, cutting corners and falling back into old ways.


Diversity opens the door to change


The more diverse – and open to new influences – a system is, the more adaptable it is to change, and the more it can claim to represent how people feel and what they want. Sometimes we tick the boxes of biographical diversity, but we forget about behavioural diversity: ensuring that we have people around who approach work in different ways.


Along with the change agents with new ideas, we need to include those who resist and resent change in the conversation, so that we’re forced to examine why changes are appropriate and how we can ease the transition for everyone. As well as people who can motivate and enthuse, we need people who can check that the details are right, so that we’re not marching off in the wrong direction. As well as subject experts who can find solutions to specific problems, we need visionaries who can co-ordinate our efforts.


Kindness and inclusion aren’t new concepts, but they are often underrated and overlooked. Now’s our chance to embrace change and focus on collective achievement.


Victoria Bird is our Head of Research and Development at Belbin, and we are so glad she is back from maternity leave!


With thanks to Talan Miller (Belbin Australia) for flagging up this article on the science of kindness.