Schools of Fish & Flocks of Geese & an Intuitive Leap re: Human Behavior in Teams

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Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) are made up of elements that respond and adapt to their environment. Think about a school of fish responding to a current or predator.   The individual fish react in a way that results in the school’s response that has some sort of meaning, like survival.  Although, taking the idea to an unrealistic extreme, the school of fish in  “Finding Nemo” offers a fun way to visualize this individual/group behavior.  Unlike simple or simpler systems, like thermostats, which can be controlled by feedback loops, the behavior of CAS is more of an emergent property.  No one fish, (that we know of) is telling the other fishes what to do, rather they follow a few simple rules and a similar vision.  Notice how the rules they follow involve the relationships they have with each other:

(1) avoid collisions

(2) match speeds with your neighbors

(3) move toward the center of mass of your neighbours.

I believe this relationship piece is important because it helps us understand and potentially promote positive human behavior in groups, teams, organizations and even societies.  In healthcare, collaboration is so important to safe care!

Geese offer us another example.  Envision a field of geese resting, eating, perhaps on their way south. 






When suddenly….

BANG!  A Shotgun goes off…


At first there is CHAOS…

                                                                                                                And soon…






The geese are all headed in the same direction and following a few simple rules, much like the fish.  Their beautiful pattern emerges as they respond or adapt to the situation as individuals in relationship AND as part of a group.  Watch this 2+ min YouTube and think about the movement of individual birds and the flock here.

What Intuitive Leap Can We Take re: Human Behavior?

As a nurse who specializes in communication, emotional intelligence, group dynamics, and leadership, I have come to believe that how we behave in groups depends on our ability to express ourselves and set limits, listen to and respect those of others, and the vision that leaders inspire and guide.  When the relationships in the group are healthy, the behavior of individuals and the group is too.  This is why the training and practice of giving and receiving feedback is so vital to team development and ultimately patient safety!  If this topic is interesting to you, you might enjoy reading the 10 page appendix from the Institute of Medicine’s Crossing the Quality Chasm called, Redesigning Health Care with Insights from the Science of Complex Adaptive Systems by Paul Plsek.

You may also be interested in learning more about the experiential learning that Medical Improv workshops offer.  This is an exciting new way to teach communication, emotional intelligence, and relationship skills!


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2 Responses to Schools of Fish & Flocks of Geese & an Intuitive Leap re: Human Behavior in Teams

  1. Meg Helgert says:

    The analogy Beth uses with the flock of geese working together to be safe or find their way is a great analogy. I think there is such a thing as “herd” mentality as well which can also be a way people can be safe but in a more destructive way. Something that scares us make us rush together..we don’t want to be caught outside of the group but some times we are when we can stop and think more clearly than the group think. Going in a direction, any direction is one thing; being part of a crowd who’ve been brainwashed is quite another thus the frog in hot water analogy. We can be bombarded by not only wrong thinking but then begin to believe that is right thinking. And this is the Stockholm syndrome(in a way): becoming sympathetic with our captors (or employers or group or fill in the blank). I guess thinking and all that goes into thinking for ourselves is much a part of our upbringing as it is with the groups we belong to. To know what is the right thing (regardless if this is the way it’s always been done or how the group thinks) actually means one must stop and give conscious thought; sometimes we don’t have enough information and that’s Ok; the moral compass we all have within can be something to rely on. Once somebody brings up the topic of “what’s the right thing to do here?” People must pause (hopefully) and give thought to that. These are just my musings for the day.

    Meg Helgert

    • Hi Meg,
      Thanks for your astute musings! Makes me wonder, ‘what is different about working together for something positive like safer care versus something more selfish like making more money from a healthcare intervention’. Even a school of fish threatened by a predator reacts/adapts, (I think) to survive. As a group, they work together to go in a different direction. The analogy may break down a bit as perhaps some fish are sacrificed b/c the group is easier to follow than individuals, but still, are the fish fighting amongst themselves? No. No doubt nature offers many examples of dominance and submission that play a vital role in the balance of nature. Yet things that I think we humans are struggling with involve ego, fear, greed…and when these elements are part of a vision or leadership strategy, maybe realistically I should say overly present in a vision or leadership strategy, I think that the influence on on individual and group behavior is destructive.

      I think responsible leadership must play a role in creating supports and structures that empower and respect and serve all humans as much as humanly possible. Conscious thought, as you suggest is so important. We must all do our own work in reflecting and growing. And we must create a culture where our children are safe and loved. I think this has to be a priority and involves a dance where structured supports, like education, job opportunities, mental and physical health care, are all available. And we must create these structures with both empowerment and support in mind and NOT ego, greed, fear.

      The recent and heartbreaking tragedy in CT seems so complex and out of control. A 20 y.o. is just a kid…and with such rage and seemingly ease w/ violence… I can’t help but wonder why his mother had all those guns and what was she living in such fear of? How did she get there? In my mind, gun control of some sort seems crucial, but this addresses only the structure part. We must also look at mental health support, video/game violence, family and child support….We must ask, What causes human beings to want or need to dominate others? We all have the capacity to be aggressive, but it seems different if we are defending some sort of survival instinct. And maybe this is all twisted up in a lack of getting basic needs, (like feeling safe and loved) met. Maybe the ‘herd’ mentality is a way to have a sense of belonging when fear is a driving force?

      The price we pay in our society for NOT being able to trust is vast. Margaret Wheatley’s book, “So Far From Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World” teaches us the importance of building trusting relationships and doing good work because they are the right thing to do makes a lot of sense to me.

      Thanks for this wonderful dialogue and I look forward to any additional thoughts you have.

What are your thoughts?