This is not about team members complaining.
Instead…there’s an intriguing phenomenon among starlings, a small- to medium-sized bird with glossy black feathers streaked with green and purple. In fall or winter, just before sundown, tens of thousands—even up to a hundred thousand—gather and fly through the sky. And instead of flying straight in a flock like most other birds, they twist and turn continuously, moving back and forth, dancing in elaborate shapes, creating a beautiful and mesmerizing show in the air. This formation is called a “murmuration.”
The best explanation experts have for how this happens is that one starling copies the movement of seven starlings around it. Then each of those seven starlings copies their seven neighbors, and somehow the movement of the whole group is synchronized. There doesn’t appear to be any single leader. They create these patterns somewhere between five to 45 minutes until suddenly they swoosh to the ground to huddle together for warmth and roost for the night.
Their movement as a group serves to protect individual starlings from predators who might want to attack them. The heat from their bodies creates a warmer roosting spot. They also share information on food sources as a means of survival. And while they may break off into smaller groups during the day to eat, they rejoin the larger group at sundown to form the murmuration.
Murmuring, performing, playing or executing
Scientists have theories on why this phenomenon occurs, but no proof. Still, these birds set an example of a massive team, coordinated and supportive in their activities. They provide a roadmap for how a symphony or dance ensemble should perform; a sports team should play; a work team should execute. As a group, they perform better than the sum of individual birds. And in that context, we can learn something about how to create team collaboration from this murmuration phenomenon.
1) Communication and harmony are critical for the group to thrive.
Starlings share information on food sources. They signal flight patterns to each other. Similarly, individual team members must value sharing information that meets their colleagues’ needs and benefits the group. Food, warmth and health are the basic physiological and safety needs according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Next comes love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. A team that communicates and collaborates in a way that meets all these needs for each other will perform at higher levels.
2) Team collaboration improves performance.
Starlings move in beautiful synchronization. Similarly, Robert Quinn’s book “Deep Change” tells the story of Bill Russell, a former all-star player with the Boston Celtics. Russell says that there were times when two opposing teams stimulated each other to high levels of play that became a “mutually reinforcing system.” At this level, Russell says he could almost sense how each play would develop and when shots would be taken. This high level of performance was amazing to watch, just like a murmuration. Do others observe your team and marvel at how wonderfully choreographed their actions are? Do your team members have a deep connection that helps them align their individual activities for the good of the group? Do they view supporting each other as key to supporting themselves?
3) Teams shift and evolve over time.
Starlings’ flight patterns shift and evolve in unpredictable ways. Teams similarly evolve as they respond to environmental threats and opportunities, and internal strengths and weaknesses. While their overarching business objectives may remain constant, how they achieve them may vary. They must be flexible yet leverage systems and processes as underpinnings for success.
Murmuring—or creating teamwork
As a leader, think about what it would be like for your team to perform as a murmuration. Think about the alignment, synchronization, support and performance they would exude. You may be tempted to try to teach them how to work together, or worse, prod them “get in line!” Instead, this is the opportunity to walk side-by-side with them and help them to become more cohesive by improving team communication and collaboration.
Reflect on any great team you’ve ever been a part of. It probably wasn’t great because someone told everyone what to do. It became great because each of you had a desire to support one another, to tap into each other’s strengths and support each other’s weaknesses. It became great because of the level of honest communication between each of you and the level of group excitement over any accomplishment on the team. Sure, there may have been individuals who provided greater glue in bringing the team together, but no one stood out as taking glory over others. Each person invested time and energy into strengthening the team. The leader simply removed roadblocks and created vision.
Make the decision now to invest in murmuring with your team.