In the Company of Hawks - Birds in Business

No crows go into business. Business is a game for hawks.

American crow in all her glory

American crow in all her glory

Forgive me for the bird analogy. It’s what I know.

By academic title, I am an avian physiologist. Translation: Bird Nerd. To earn my PhD I spent countless hours climbing trees, ATVing around sand and scrub and washing more blood and bird poop out of clothing than anyone should have to wash in 21 lifetimes.  So what the heck do birds and business have in common? Admittedly, on the surface, not much. But the more I find myself immersed in the world of business, the more readily I find patterns from the world of biology replaying themselves out in boardrooms.

In my role as a biologist I studied the way animals adapted to environmental changes. How would they behave when a new dominant male rolled through their established territory? Why might an animal willingly forgo a fight and instead choose to cooperate with another individual over a valuable resource? Why might a woman decide to accept a drink from one male, but not another?

Humans, it turns out, behave predictably like every other animal in the world and the merging of biology as it applies to business is long overdue.

Let me return to the crow/hawk analogy. Crows, a bird I dedicated a substantial part of my life to studying, are a strange bird. They are highly cooperative, choosing to help one another in extended family groups through the course of much of their lives. This may not seem all that bizarre given our human bias to think that this is the way nature works.

Most people think nature works a little like this: Mom and dad bird raise baby bird and when it leaves the nest it’s always welcome back to visit and bring the grandbabies etc. In other words, we are predisposed to think that animals behave like us.

Happy, harmonious (erroneous) nature. 

Happy, harmonious (erroneous) nature. 

WRONG.

Most animals will just as likely kill their own offspring when it comes back to “visit” as they would welcome it. So crows are kind of weird in that they model a very similar social structure to our own human society, complete with multiple generations living, working, and raising offspring together.

Hawks on the other hand (as a general rule), are the “nature red in tooth and claw” version of the bird world. Fierce competitors and, with the exception of one notable cooperative species (Harris hawks), largely independent living individuals. I’m going to wager that most business men and women would not particularly mind the comparison to this symbol of strength, power, and competitiveness.

And frankly, I wouldn't mind it myself.

Hawks are immensely keen and commanding birds. But what happens to an organization that’s comprised solely of these competitive hawks?  

This is the question I aim to answer over the course of the next several weeks. Expect insights from game theory, evolutionary psychology, and yes, plenty from the world of ornithology. I’m excited to bring you the beginning of a blog series I’m calling: “In the company of hawks.”