Is 'symbiosis' a better employee relationship metaphor?

“The whole dear notion of one’s own Self—the marvelous, old free-willed, free-enterprising, autonomous, independent, isolated island of a Self—is a myth.” — Lewis Thomas

The Bobtail Squid has a remarkable camouflage trick1. When cruising at night it regulates tiny lights in its mantle to match the intensity of the starlight or moonlight illuminating the ocean. It therefore casts no shadow and is invisible to predators roaming below.

Fascinatingly, the squid does not produce the light itself. Its ‘invisibility cloak’ is made up of special light organs that provide a home for another species entirely, a bioluminescent bacteria. The squid provides its bacterial symbiont with nutrients and a safe place to reproduce. In turn, the symbiont gives the squid its superpower. Together they make a great team.

Symbiosis is a fundamental relationship in nature. Some species co-evolve with thousands of symbionts. You do not need to travel far to find one — go and look in the mirror. Of the approximately 37 trillion cells that form the shape you see reflected, only about half are your own ‘self-cells’. The rest are your microbiome. We are literally swarming with microbes.2

Hosts and their symbionts are so interdependent that biologists are challenging the very notion of individuality. It is argued that the holobiont — a macro-organism together with its microbiome — should be considered the unit of natural selection rather than the constituent individual species.3

The holobiont — an integrated community — provides a nice counter-analogy to the way we often think about employees and organisations.

When we describe the relationship between employees and their organisations, it is often in totalising terms. We speak of employees ‘belonging to’ an organisation, or being ‘a part of’ it, as if employees constitute the analogous ‘self-cells’ of the organisation.

Who you work for then becomes part of who you are: an IBMer, a Micosoftie, an Amazonian … a deep and inseparable entanglement.

In this process we often subordinate our self-identity to the collective identity of the group, assimilating the organisation’s values and norms into our being, sometimes ‘selling our soul’ in order to purchase the requisite acceptance and fit. And organisations seem to desire such assimilation, as witnessed by the widespread obsession of aligning employees to a corporation’s ‘core values’. It’s like we want our organisations to comprise only of ‘self-cells’, and to repel the others.

Perhaps imagining an organisation as a sort of holobiont is a useful metaphor: a superstructure to nurture the particular talents of employees, treating them as individuals, with their own identities and values, focusing on optimising the symbiotic relationship, for both parties, instead of trying to mold employees into an undifferentiated mass; finding ways to make individuals thrive, and in doing so gifting the organisation with superpowers.

It’s just an idea. What do you think?

Leave a comment

Image credits

Sepiola Atlantica: © Hans Hillewaert licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 international license.


See Margaret McFall-Ngai’s terrific presentation on the Bobtail Squid


Scott F. Gilbert, Jan Sapp, and Alfred I. Tauber, ‘A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals’, The Quarterly Review of Biology 87, no. 4 (1 December 2012): 325–41, doi:10.1086/668166.


Roughgarden, J., Gilbert, S.F., Rosenberg, E. et al. Holobionts as Units of Selection and a Model of Their Population Dynamics and Evolution. Biol Theory 13, 44–65 (2018).