A hawk in crow clothing: external competition in a company of crows

Crows uphold quite the reputation.

And in business (and life), reputation is what people remember.

Alfred’s Hitchcock’s The Birds probably didn't do too much to help the reputation of these charming black birds. Neither do farmers who insist crows are out stealing grain and corn from their fields (in fact, crows are mostly eating all the rodents that would otherwise be destroying the crops of farmers). But perhaps the most damning thing that crows are remembered for by the masses is how loud and obnoxious they can be when they gather in large groups.

Scare crow providing a lovely perching spot for crows.

Scare crow providing a lovely perching spot for crows.

Ok. I’ll grant you that.

While I happen to find the sharp CAW of a crow quite a lovely sound, I recognize that I’m in the minority there.

Independent of how you feel about their calls, the bigger question is, what is all the fuss about to begin with? 

In the last post I explored how internally, having employees behave like hawks amongst one another was ultimately detrimental to their individual benefit with repeat interactions. But the temptation to behave hawkishly toward a crow in the company is almost irresistible when the immediate payoff is higher. Why would any individual cooperate with another employee when the payoff as explored last time, looks to be zero? As I said to start this blog series, no crows go into business. Business is a hawk’s game. So why behave as a crow with zero individual payoff? 

The trick is recognizing on which level to compete.

In biology, we refer to this concept as multilevel selection. Who survives and reproduces passing along the genetics of the next generation?

Does a cell, or the genetic makeup of an individual possess excellent traits for that particular environment?

What about a population of individuals?

Or a species as a whole? 

Representation of biological multilevel selection

Representation of biological multilevel selection

In business terms, we can look at this phenomenon by addressing:

  1. individual employees or leaders
  2. the companies themselves
  3. entire industries

In the last post we explored interactions at the individual level. While the hawks that go into business may not initially like that zero payoff associated with playing crow internally, the big payoff comes at the secondary level of selection.

Imagine two fictitious companies.

Company A is a company of crows. All behaving cooperatively to advance projects forward, independent of individual compensation or credit.  As a whole, their overall company score is 0. No great individual gains, no great individual losses.

Now imagine Company B.

Company B is a company of hawks. All behaving competitively, trying to get a leg up on one another. Projects may progress in fits and starts and leaders emerge by stomping on the shoulders of those they are competing against to look good internally. The overall company score is closer to -10. Some individuals are making gains, but others are taking losses, and all are fighting over zero sum resources of rank, recognition and titles. In other words, there are “fighting” or “competition” costs associated with each reward. The company cannot emerge unscarred.

When Company A and Company B compete directly, who wins? The obvious answer is Company A. When crows are gathered in groups, all calling and carrying on, it’s often because they are working together to drive off a hawk.  Company B doesn’t stand a chance. Put 100 hawks against 100 crows and the crows will systematically, in a coordinated effort, drive off each hawk, acting together as a much larger bird of prey, while the hawks are all too busy fighting over who gets to eat first.

Cooperative behavior in crows and companies alike, will drive off hawk competitors. 

Cooperative behavior in crows and companies alike, will drive off hawk competitors. 

At the group level, in biology and in business, cooperation wins.

This is where the rewards begin to roll in: raises, new contracts, bonuses. When the company does well, so do all of its individuals.

That initial zero payoff at the individual level now comes in a major 10 fold payoff at the company level.

Hawkish behavior needs to be saved for competition at the external company level. A company of crows working in conjunction can be a much more effective hawk towards its competitors than any company of hawks.

The next question to explore is how these companies should behave at the industry level. Until then, soar high.