kwenchBlogBanner_RightSymbiont_I ain’t some dying dog that you can kick /
So f* off /
It’s so easy to fall into that hole /
And you’re the one who cast me in that role / (Social Parasite, Alice in Chains)

We often hear comparisons of organizations with organisms. In his book ‘The Living Company’, Arie De Gues compares companies to living organisms by arguing that just like them, companies learn, evolve and eventually cease to exist. The traditional view point of the contract between an employee and the organization/employer has been that of two principals who are inherently in conflict; but in order to maximize their self-interest they engage in co-operation with each other. Employee-employer relationships have come a long way from the Master-Slave days and so has the implicit contract between them.

With increasing mobility, more choices about whom to work for is now available to a vast majority of the employable workforce. The newer generations are taking bolder and more informed decisions about their employers of choice. I will go out on a limb here and argue that the relationship formed between one organism (the employee) with another (the organization) is, in modern times, increasingly symbiotic. And more so, when the nature of the ongoing relationship becomes dependent on the engagement levels of the employee.

Applying the symbiotic contract model to the employee-employer relationship suggests that “at the same time as the employee is the agent for the employer in carrying out the work, the employer is acting in part as the agent of the employee in creating work to be performed and in enhancing the worker’s employability”

Now in nature there are essentially three types of symbiotic relationships: Mutualism, Commensalism and Parasitism.

In Mutualism, both organisms have an advantage from the pairing. The relationship between the ox-pecker bird and the zebra is commonly cited as an example of this. The bird eats ticks and other parasites found on the Zebra’s skin. The bird gets food and the Zebra gets pest control. Win-Win.

In Commensalism, one organism benefits from the other but provides no benefit or does no harm. An example is that of the Shark and the Remora. The latter eats the scraps of food left behind when the shark feeds, but provides no benefit to the Shark.

And lastly in Parasitism, the parasite uses its host to secure nourishment and ends up doing some or extensive harm to the organism. Harmful viruses and bacteria are the most common example.

If we were to extend the types of symbiotic relationships in nature to the relationship between an employee and the organization – the following might be one way of looking at the mapping.

A disengaged employee would essentially be (at the risk of sounding extremely negative) a parasite. He would not only consume resources of the company without providing benefit, but could do harm as well (the actively disengaged employee).

A neutral employee who isn’t motivated to deliver his best would have a relationship analogous to commensalism. He does his work but the incremental benefits don’t really accrue to the organization.

It’s the third set that really makes all the difference to the organization – the motivated set that are in a mutually beneficial relationship with the company. They add value and benefit the organization. They help organizations become ‘Antifragile’ (See my previous post on this here)

As a leader which type of symbiotic employees do you want to cultivate?

As an employee which type of symbiont do you want to be?

The choice might be obvious but making it happen is needs a cohesive and transparent employee engagement strategy.

References and Acknowledgments: 

Labour Law in an Era of Globalization: Transformative Practices and Possibilities, Oxford University Press



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