I am a selfish person. Though I gladly do things for other people, and give stuff away for free, I tend to do that when I believe I’m being good to myself. The pursuit of my happiness has led me to offer jobs to unfortunate unemployed souls who needed a second chance, to give projects to people in desperate need of experience, to buy stuff from people in poor countries, and to be a supporter for Amnesty International. All because I’m selfish.
Genes are selfish too, as Richard Dawkins pointed out some decades ago. But, despite their selfishness, in the human genome 1,195 genes cooperate to produce the heart; 2,164 genes team up to make white blood cells; and 3,195 genes are jointly responsible for the human brain. They are teams of selfish genes, evolving together because, in all their selfishness, they figured out that it pays not to be on their own. It increases their chance of survival in the harsh environment of the gene pool.
An interesting form of teaming up within one species is found in the ants called Pheidole pallidula, which consists of small ant workers and large soldiers ants. When an intruder attempts to enter the nest, the worker ants pin down the intruder, while they recruit a soldier to decapitate the victim. (Don’t you just love the things teams can learn from nature?)
There are also many forms of teaming up between different species. One example is lichen, which is a partnership, or symbiotic association, between algae and fungi. The algae are photosynthesizers, capturing energy from the sun, while the fungi have great water-storage capabilities. This symbiotic relationship enables lichen to survive in barren environments. The team of two species can do what neither of the individual species can do alone.
Selfish cooperation is a matter of costs vs. benefits, where the small cost of giving or sharing leads to greater immediate or deferred benefits. Some call it reciprocal altruism, or win-win reciprocity, or you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours. It is why many jewelers in Antwerp have snuggled up and settled together in a few streets called the Diamond District. It is why fierce competitors like Google, Microsoft, and Apple are regularly seen to work together. It is why I’m answering people’s questions for free, promoting the books of my competitors, and offering jobs to suicidal kangaroos.
The root cause of the paradox of competition vs. cooperation (sometimes referred to as coopetition) can be traced back to the 235-year old book The Wealth of Nations, by economist and philosopher Adam Smith. He described division of labor as the concept of people working together, and specializing in different tasks, while still working for personal profit. And, as if guided by “an invisible hand,” the whole system then tends to improve the lives for everyone involved.
It is the same in organizations. Employees are competitors because they are hired individually. They frequently have eyes for the same job openings, the same cool projects, the same management positions, and the same parking space right near the entrance to the office building. But people team up together because it makes them more productive, gives them more joy, and better end-of-year evaluations.
We are all selfish. And the smartest selfish people understand that it is in their own self-interest to work together and be nice to each other. This coincides with the discovery of mathematician Robert Axelrod, who noticed that the game strategy Tit-for-tat, which tells someone to play nice as long as the competitors play nice as well, is one of the most successful survival strategies in games and in nature. It also coincides with Christopher Avery’s observation that teamwork is an individual skill. And philosopher Ayn Rand wrote books and essays on what she called the virtue of selfishness. Though her rigid doctrine has been criticized by many, at some level she did have a point.
These examples all tell the same story: Adam Smith’s invisible hand gently pushes people into cooperative behavior, because they all want the best for themselves.
This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.