Fix dysfunctional teams by bioteaming

There are many ways to diagnose dysfunctional teams: lack of shared objectives, poor co-operative working practices, weak leadership etc. However taking a purely biological perspective opens up exciting possibilities for significantly improving dysfunctional team performance.


Hawks and Doves

Evolutionary biology uses a technique called evolutionary game theory to describe how animals and insects interact.

Within a single biological species the simplest scenario is where there are just two "game strategies" available to the players - Hawks and Doves.

'Hawks' always fight to injure or kill their opponents; though in the process they risk injury to themselves.

'Doves' simply threaten but never engage in serious fights.

How would evolution proceed in this particular game?

Firstly what would happen if all the individuals in the species were Doves?

Every contest would be between two Doves so a lone Hawk would do very well and its genes would spread.

Thus an all-dove population is not stable because it can be invaded by a mutant adopting the Hawk strategy.

Secondly consider a population comprising just Hawks.

Every contest would be between two Hawks so the costs would be very high.

A lone Dove in such a population would do better than the Hawks so Dove genes would spread.

In this model of Hawks and Doves natural selection would favour a mixed population of both Doves and Hawks, and the stable equilibrium would be when the average payoff for a Hawk are equal to those for a Dove.

When alternative competing strategies are at equilibrium it is described as an "Evolutionary Stable State" (ESS) .

(See Chris Meredith's excellent article "The Story of Tit for Tat" if you would like to read more on Evolutionary Biology, Game Theory and ESS).

Cooperators and non-cooperators

Applying evolutionary game theory to an organisational team we come up with the simplest game involving just two strategies - cooperators and non-cooperators.

As with the Hawks and Doves, left to its own devices a team will evolve into an Evolutionary Stable State where there is a stable balance of co-operators and non-cooperators.

This is because, just like the all-dove state, an all-cooperator state is unstable and can be easily exploited by just a single non-cooperator.

So from an evolutionary biology perspective a dysfunctional team is simply one which is stuck in an equilibrium state where there is a stable mix of cooperative and non cooperative players.

Whilst this state suits the individual team members it is not the optimum state for the achievement of collective team goals.

So how can cooperation evolve?

One of the biggest difficulties in evolutionary biology is explaining how co-operative behaviour can evolve.

The difficulty is that co-operation can always be broken and exploited by selfish players and natural selection should therefore always favour the "cheats" over the co-operators meaning than co-operation should never be sustainable.

This problem was only resolved relatively recently (1981) with the discovery of a strategy which seems to explains the secret of how stable co-operative behaviour evolves in nature.

The prisoner's dilemma

The prisoner's dilemma is the name of an imaginary situation in which two individuals are apprehended and accused of being accomplices in a crime.

The prisoners are held separately and attempts are made to induce each one to implicate the other. If neither one does, both are set free. This is the co-operative strategy available to both prisoners.

In order to tempt them to defect, each is told that implicating the other will lead to their release. If both confess however each one is imprisoned. If one individual implicates the other and not vice versa, then the implicated partner receives a harsher sentence than if each had implicated the other.

The prisoner's dilemma is that if they both think logically then each one will decide that it is best to implicate the other even although they would both be better off trusting each other.

Robert Axelrod was interested in finding a winning strategy for 'repeated' prisoner's dilemmas games. This is where the players know that the game will be played out many times and therefore past behaviours will influence future decisions.

Axelrod conducted a computer tournament where people were invited to submit strategies for playing 200 games of prisoner's dilemma (Axlerod and Hamilton, 1981).

The result of the tournament, which had 14 entries was that the simplest of all strategies submitted known as TIT FOR TAT attained the highest average score.

This strategy had only two rules:

1) On the first move co-operate.

2) ON each succeeding move do what your opponent did the previous move.

The results of this tournament were published and people were invited to submit programs for a second tournament. This was identical in form to the first, except that matches were not of exactly 200 games, to avoid the complication of programs that might have special rules for the last game.

This time there were 62 entries from six countries and TIT FOR TAT also won again comfortably.

TIT FOR TAT in Nature

A number of studies have shown that TIT FOR TAT is also nature's preferred co-operation strategy in biological species - the most famous being Stickleback fish.

During the early stages of an attack by a stalking pike, some sticklebacks may leave their shoal to approach the predator, for a 'predator inspection visit'.

They do this as a small group so that they can get very close and if the pike turns on them the fact they are in a group is confusing to it and increases all their chances of escape.

The experimenters gave the sticklebacks the chance to alter their behaviour according to that of an imaginary companion fish - their reflection in a mirror. The mirror could be angled to give the illusion of a companion keeping up (co-operating) or lagging behind (defecting).

In the experiment the stickleback followed the rules of TIT FOR TAT exactly - for example those fish with co-operating mirrors went closer to the predator and stayed there longer than the fish with defecting mirrors. Also the fish would usually forgive their cowardly companions up to a point and approach the predator again and again.

Applying TIT FOR TAT in Organisational Teams

TIT FOR TAT is so important because it allows for cooperation to be achieved but not at the expense of being exploited.

This is through the retaliation and forgiveness responses which enable conflicting parties to recover the co-operation after a breakdown.

Organisational team members often say and believe that they are committed to "playing Win-Win" but the evidence from evolutionary biology shows that the best strategy for achieving Win-Win is not Win-Win but in fact TIT FOR TAT!

So to transform a non-cooperative team we simply need to teach and coach the team members to play TIT FOR TAT.

The rules of TIT FOR TAT are very simple:

  1. Never be the first to defect

  2. Retaliate only after your partner has defected

  3. Be prepared to forgive after carrying out just one act of retaliation

But TIT FOR TAT is not enough

From my experience TIT FOR TAT is necessary but not sufficient to transform dysfunctional teams.

We need to put in a couple of other simple foundations - team ground rules and team karma.

Team Ground Rules

Team Ground Rules define the non-negotiable behaviours all team members must commit to including:

  • What behaviours would damage or destroy trust?
  • How will information be shared?
  • How will conflicts of interest be managed?
  • How will decisions be made?
  • What will we do with members who don't observe these rules?

Ground Rules must be simple and objective otherwise they cannot be policed and enforced and can generally be summarised in a couple of pages.

Team Karma ("what's in it for me?")

This is a technique for uncovering and sharing personal motivations and ambitions in a team. 'Karma' in life means you only get out what you put in - the same applies to teams.

Team Karma identifies what each member wants out of their participation in the team and what accountabilities and roles they will commit to achieve it.

You then simply aggregate the accountabilities to see if the team has enough to get the job done!

It is a strange fact of organisational life that most team members want more out of team participation than they are prepared to put in.

It is only when this is shown to them all collectively that the impact of these unrealistic expectations can start to be addressed.


Looking at dysfunctional teams in organisations from a standpoint of biology gives new insight into how to unstick them.

The core technique for doing this is known as TIT FOR TAT but it needs to be complemented by Team Ground Rules and Team Karma.

For More on TIT FOR TAT in organisational teams see:

Virtual team execution-three action rules from nature

Harvard professor gives biological explanation for why we cooperate

For an overview of the principles of bioteaming:

The secret DNA of high-performing virtual teams

About the Author

Ken Thompson is an expert practitioner in the area of bioteaming, swarming, virtual enterprise networks, virtual professional communities and virtual teams and has published two landmark books:

Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature's Best Designs

The Networked Enterprise: Competing for the future through Virtual Enterprise Networks

Ken writes the highly popular bioteams blog which has over 500 articles on all aspects of bioteams (aka organizational biomimicry) - in other words how human groups can learn from nature's best teams.

Ken is also founder of an exciting European technology company Swarmteams which provides unique patent-pending bioteaming technologies for all shapes and sizes of groups, social networks, business clusters, virtual/mobile communities and enterprises. Swarmteams enables groups to be more response and agile by fully integrating their mobile phones and the web with bioteam working techniques. The latest Swarmteams implementation is SwarmTribes which helps musicians and bands form a unique collaboration with their fans for mutual benefit.

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A lone Dove in [a population of hawks] would do better than the Hawks so Dove genes would spread."

Surely this depends on whether the hawks see the dove as a threat or not? A lone dove in a population of hawks that was not friendly towards aliens would be doomed!

There's an interesting parallel here with bonding social capital (sticking to one's own kind) and bridging social capital (spanning different groups).


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