What Can Mushrooms Teach Us About Leadership? A Lot, Actually.

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Mutually beneficial relationships form the backbone of highly evolved ecologies, like the communities found inside anthills and beehives. And these relationships form the foundations of healthy organizations, too. When business leaders look to nature for inspiration, they’ll often find lessons on how to run a thriving company in some of the most unexpected places.

For example, consider the wild mushrooms and fungi of the world. These organisms seem relatively simple on the surface, but did you know they play an important role in forest health? Mushrooms form an underground network of thin threads, called mycelium, that connect the roots of the trees in a forest to one another. Through this network — known as the mycorrhizal network or the “woodwide web” — the mycelium supports the flow of nutrients between forest species. In a sense, the fungi act as one of nature’s “middlemen,” helping trees send nutrients to faraway seedlings and other plants in need.

The mycorrhizal network of mycelium can be a great role model for businesses, showing us strategies we can use to create more mutually beneficial relationships and promote impactful cooperation in our work environments. Mirroring the behavior of the trusty mycelium and other aspects of nature can help us transform our work environments into what I call “generous organizations.” These are companies that operate on a foundation of trust, healthy relationships, and shared contributions — much like a forest does!

As leaders, we need to find ways to encourage our teams to be more generous; doing so will help us take advantage of these “natural” ways to promote engagement and productivity.

With that in mind, here are five ways we can mirror nature to transform our organizations and workplaces into thriving, generous, collaborative environments:

1. Share a Higher Purpose

Workers find a deep sense of meaning in their work and increased motivation to cooperate when they feel the positive energy of shared purpose. Research consistently shows that employees are more productive and engaged at work when they have a clear sense of purpose. It is only when teams clearly understand the shared goals they’re working toward together that members start to understand the interdependent relationships they have with one another — which brings me to my next point.

2. Focus on Interdependence

In most organizations, power has traditionally been defined as “having influence and authority over others.” In nature, however, true power is gained through interdependence, trust, and transparency. That’s what makes beehives so successful; that’s why the mycorrhizal network is so vital to forests everywhere.

Good leadership should promote interdependence. That is how you fuel the engine that drives teams and organizations toward their goals.

3. Support Strong Feedback Loops

Nature is designed to communicate feedback continuously and quickly so that organisms can quickly adapt to new developments and situations. Even your Fitbit functions similarly, reinforcing a healthy lifestyle by giving you real-time feedback to help you adjust your behaviors.

Whether we’re talking about nature or technology, the key benefit of this continuous communication is that it allows people to quickly see the impacts of their decisions and actions and then change direction as needed. Think about how you can drive similar cycles of communication in the workplace.

4. Reward Collaboration

Encourage collaboration with rewards and other kinds of positive reinforcement. Identify areas of your organization where collaboration occurs and lift them up as examples for other employees to follow so that they can recreate and model those collaborative wins in other parts of your organization.

5. Encourage Trust and Trustworthiness

By “trust,” I mean a willingness to share information, thoughts, ideas, reactions, and feelings with others. By “trustworthiness,” I mean accepting what others share, supporting them, and approaching relationships cooperatively. This acceptance makes people feel respected and recognizes their strengths and contributions.

Generous organizations function much more effectively, and it all starts with promoting interdependence between teams. As the mycorrhizal network facilitates communication between trees, one group of trees can join roots with another, making the forest much stronger overall. The same can happen in your organization.

Consider putting these steps into practice to guide your workplace toward more cooperation and collaboration. Workers and leaders will feel more satisfied and work to their fullest potential, and your organization will develop sustainable power to propel itself into the future.

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen  is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature-Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s Worldand president of Allen and Associates.

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By Kathleen Allen