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The Beekeepers and Their Bees 

en Español / em Português

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Once upon a time, there were two beekeepers who each had a beehive. The beekeepers worked for a company called Bees, Inc. The company’ s customers loved its honey and wanted the business to produce more honey than it had the previous year. As a result, each beekeeper was told to produce more honey at the same quality. With different ideas about how to do this, the beekeepers designed different approaches to improve the performance of their hives. 

The first beekeeper established a bee performance management approach that measured how many flowers each bee visited. At considerable cost to the beekeeper, an extensive measurement system was created to count the flowers each bee visited. The beekeeper provided feedback to each bee at midseason on their individual performance, but the bees were never told about the hive’s goal to produce more honey so that Bees, Inc., could increase honey sales. The beekeeper created special awards for the bees who visited the most flowers. 

The second beekeeper also established a bee performance management approach, but this approach communicated to each bee the goal of the hive—to produce more honey. This beekeeper and the bees measured two aspects of their performance: the amount of nectar each bee brought back to the hive and the amount of honey the hive produced. The performance of each bee and the hive’s overall performance were charted and posted on the hive’s bulletin board for all bees to see. The beekeeper created a few awards for the bees that gathered the most nectar, but also established a hive incentive program that rewarded each bee in the hive based on the hive’ s production of honey—the more honey produced the more recognition each bee would receive. 

At the end of the season, the beekeepers evaluated their approaches. The first beekeeper found that the hive had indeed increased the number of flowers visited, but the amount of honey produced by the hive had dropped. The Queen Bee reported that because the bees were so busy trying to visit as many flowers as possible, they limited the amount of nectar they would carry so they could fly faster. Also, because the bees felt they were competing against each other for awards (because only the top performers were recognized), they would not share valuable information with each other (like the location of the flower-filled fields they’d spotted on the way back to the hive) that could have helped improve the performance of all the bees. (After all was said and done, one of the high-performing bees told the beekeeper that if it was told that the real goal was to make more honey rather than to visit more flowers, it would have worked completely differently.) As the beekeeper handed out the awards to individual bees, unhappy buzzing was heard in the background. 

The second beekeeper, however, had very different results. Because each bee in his hive was focused on the hive’s goal of producing more honey, the bees had concentrated their efforts on gathering more nectar to produce more honey than ever before. The bees worked together to determine the highest nectar-yielding flowers and to create quicker processes for depositing the nectar they’d gathered. They also worked together to help increase the amount of nectar gathered by the poor performers. The Queen Bee of this hive reported that the poor performers either improved their performance or transferred to another hive. Because the hive had reached its goal, the beekeeper awarded each bee a portion of the hive incentive payment. The beekeeper was also surprised to hear a loud, happy buzz and a jubilant flapping of wings as the individual high performing bees were rewarded with special recognition. 


Although it somewhat oversimplifies performance management, the beekeepers’ story illustrates the importance of measuring and recognizing accomplishments (the amount of honey production per hive) rather than activities (visiting flowers).

Source: U.S. OPM, A Handbook for Measuring Employee Performance