The Power of Mutually Beneficial Work Relationships




  • — March 14, 2019

    Ways the relationship between a squid and its bacteria buddy can teach us how to build stronger, more mutually beneficial work relationships.

    In my work with corporations and non-profits we look to nature as a muse for smarter, more successful organizational business models. By mapping to some of nature’s most successful frameworks, we can build companies that are sustainable, purposeful while boosting profits and donations.

    When it comes to figuring out the beneficial professional relationship models, Nature is filled with examples. Unfortunately, however, our historical view of the relationships found in nature has been built on the perception of competition. In other words, we’ve all bought into the idea that it’s a “dog eat dog” “survival of the fittest” world. I’m happy to report that for the most part, the idea of competitive relationships being the natural state of things is actually a fallacy.

    The more deeply we investigate into nature’s inner workings, the more we see that it is literally filled with mutually beneficial relationships. The Hawaiian bobtail squid, for example, has a symbiotic relationship with a bacterium called Vibrio fischeri. This microbe is embedded in the squid’s ink sac and emits light at night that actually matches the illumination of the moon. This mechanism acts like an invisibility cloak for the squid that would otherwise be vulnerable to other sea life due to its small size. In return for this protection, the microbe receives needed nutrients from the squid to live creating a mutually beneficial relationship between bacteria and cephalopod.

    Our story about the squid and the microbe is an example of a symbiotic relationship where two different species mutually benefit each other, working together to increase the chances of survival for both parties. On the flip side,

    Parasitic relationships also exist in nature. A parasite is an organism that lives in or on an organism of another species – the host- and benefits by deriving nutrients at the other’s expense. In this relationship, one species benefits but the other doesn’t. Where I’m based here in Minnesota, the common wood tick living underneath a dog’s fur would be the best example of that type of relationship. While symbiotic relationships are considered “++” parasitic are often termed “+-” in the natural world.

    The Power of Organizational Symbiosis

    Organizations also have mutually beneficial relationships, but we don’t always give them the respect they deserve. If we wanted to learn from nature, we would look at our relationships as having the potential of becoming or being mutually beneficial, rather than viewing everything through a distorted, competitive lens. One that often seems more parasitic in nature. This view can be detrimental to organizations.

    Functions like IT, HR, finance and R&D are often seen as cost centers or “back office” functions that don’t produce revenue like manufacturing, sales, and service. Sometimes people who work on the revenue side of our enterprise see these functions as “less valuable” because they aren’t generating income. This kind of thinking is more like a parasitic relationship found in nature. The backroom functions “live off the host” (i.e. the revenue generating functions) at the expense of the profit-generating divisions. In return, HR or finance staff members who may feel as though the organization views them as less valuable may try to gain attention by becoming rule-bound, or showing their power by being slow to respond to requests.

    Seen through the eyes of symbiosis however, our back-office functions are essential to keeping our organizations healthy and thriving. The relationship is actually mutually beneficial! Changing the relationship perspective from parasitic to symbiotic by realizing that ALL functions contribute to the organization and its ability to thrive shifts the quality of the relationship between departments.

    If we saw our organizational relationships as mutually beneficial, we would show people in our supportive functions how much we value them and need them to create a thriving whole. They, in turn, might appreciate the different and mutually beneficial value that products, programs, and sales bring to the organization.

    Symbiotic relationships can also extend to other relationships, like those between sales and service, marketing and manufacturing, and operations and programs. All these departmental relationships are mutually beneficial to the organization. Understanding where one department might feel it is “feeding” off another and changing the mindset to that of a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship can boost productivity, engagement and all of the bottom line metrics as people learn to value the contributions each area has to the overall whole.

    Assess Your Mutually Beneficial Work Relationships

    Are you competing with other people or departments for resources, attention or something else? If you’ve been trained to believe in the survival of the fittest, then take a moment and ask yourself a couple of questions:

    • How do other people or departments make or break my ability to deliver on my work goals?
    • How do I make or break another person or department’s ability to accomplish their goals?

    In nature, each organization has a mechanism that helps it not only survive, but thrive based on a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship. The answer to these questions may help you determine similar mechanisms within your own business and or work life. By maximizing your focus on those symbiotic relationships, you will see not only the productivity, but your enjoyment of the work itself, soar.

    Nature knows best, even in business.

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    Author: Dr. Kathleen Allen

    Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She… View full profile ›

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