Boobies do it by dancing. Elk do it with their antlers. Fruit flies do it with murder. How biologically driven competition may be undermining your company culture.

Competition is a way of life (and death) in the animal world—particularly between males. Blue-footed boobies are almost as famous for their dancing rituals as they are for their juvenilely hilarious name. Females select the best dancer as their partner.

Male elks grow enormous antler racks and engage in battle with one another to determine who gets the girl.

 Credit: Lori Iverson / USFWS

Credit: Lori Iverson / USFWS

And fruit flies? Fruit flies are a bit more sinister, releasing a toxin into their semen that subdues a female’s mating drive (lowering the chances that she will lay eggs carrying any other male’s DNA) and slowly kills her (post egg production, of course).

 Watch out! It's a trap!  By TheAlphaWolf [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Watch out! It's a trap!

By TheAlphaWolf [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

There is a commonly held misinformed belief that animals will reproduce “for the continuation of the species.” The reality is, animals don’t give a flying hootenanny about continuing their species. They are in the reproduction game completely for selfish reasons.  They reproduce because they care about continuing their genes, and specifically not the other guys’.  

Humans are no different.

We’d be foolish to believe that we have escaped the powerful evolutionary drive to compete against others in our gender in order to establish our desirability as mates. And while certainly some of us do this in more explicit ways than others (consider Ricky Martin stealing a page from the boobie playbook), most of our understanding of the reason we compete is buried at a subconscious level.  By bringing this insight to our awareness, we can begin to take actionable steps to ensure our own subconscious processes don’t lead us down a path that reduces our ability to be a collaborative and productive member of a workforce.  

Males and females have two different competitive strategies. Males of almost every species compete directly and openly with one another to attain higher social status. Males with resources are more successful in obtaining mates to pass along their genes, and they flaunt this status as a means of attracting females. 

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In humans, high status is the number one trait females seek from their male partners, and they use all kinds of modern cues (expensive carsluxury accommodations, etc.) to assess the attainment of this social dominance. There is a reason men give diamonds, an expensive and otherwise frivolous gift, as a sign of commitment to their partners. Such a demonstration indicates not only a man’s ability to provide, but also his willingness to share resources with his mate and any potential offspring they share. But this evolved drive to openly compete for status against other males can lead to disastrous situations in the workplace. Competition between males willing to engage in a game of never-ending one-upmanship limits productivity, reduces creativity, and can sabotage cooperation within a company.

While females may not be driven to compete with one another as openly as their male counterparts, that does not make them any less vulnerable to the subconscious behaviors that can undermine a productive work environment. Although competition between females is typically far subtler, it is nevertheless just as vicious. Outwardly, females must maintain the appearance of cooperative/affiliative behaviors, as males are attracted to females who are able to maintain alliances, thus assuring a network to help raise (presumably their own) healthy offspring. While females seek cooperation from one another, they also actively work to exclude those women from their communities who pose a threat to their own security (i.e., women who might “mate-poach”). Women do not want their mate’s resources split between themselves and any other woman and as such, strategies to limit the threat of other women (particularly those who are attractive and of childbearing age) can take the form of exclusion via social gossip or outright discrimination. One study demonstrated that attractive females were significantly less likely to be hired when those responsible for hiring them were themselves females.

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Competition for a potential mate’s attention may not be intentional, or even a conscious behavior, but being unaware of our own biological ambitions does not excuse us from ultimately needing to address the issues they create. A better understanding of why and with whom we are biologically driven to compete can help us all be more aware of the potential pitfalls of misguided competition and take actionable steps to correct them before we all get caught looking like boobies.