4 things ants can teach us about office politics
If you ever find a time to breathe in your busy day, between your coffee chats, stand-ups, and handling various asks, you might look down and notice a neat line of ants scrambling about among the sidewalk cracks. Ants are a fantastically low-effort metaphor for the dehumanized status of urban office workers like you and me. For example, despite being individually extremely dull, through the magic of emergent behavior, they forge some absolutely breathtaking works of art. Take a look at this petrified ant nest:
No ant had drawn up blueprints for this nest. No ant had a map of what they were trying to produce. Each ant that helped dig this nest had a simple series of rules, a simple series of instincts about where to grab dirt and where to place them, and somehow, emergently behaviorwise, this superstructure is formed! And they do it all while cooperating with thousands of other ants who they don’t know, trust, or like, but can always smell. In short, ants have experience running corporations for millions of years. So if we want to learn how to really climb that corporate ladder and achieve our childhood dream of becoming a barely competent mid-level manager, who better to learn from than the ants?
Lesson One: Inefficiency at the micro level might be robustness on the macro level
If you watch a series of ants attempt to lug a writhing, dying caterpillar to their nest to feed their young, you’ll notice something interesting — ants are total shit at cooperation. You’ll see 15 ants daisy chained pulling it towards the nest, and like 10 ants daisy chained pulling it away from the nest. This is obviously inefficient, and a naive observer might think “Why don’t they just use 5 ants to pull it towards the nest?”
The truth is, there is an algorithm that each individual ant is using to decide in which direction to pull the tortured caterpillar husk. This algorithm is highly robust and produces the right answer most of the time. Having many agents push and pull in different directions allows the ant colony to “vote” on the best course of action and respond in highly dynamic and uncertain circumstances!
Ant tip #1: If you feel frustrated by obvious inefficiencies in a large and bureaucratic system, remember the parable of the ants and the caterpillar corpse, and think to yourself, “What if it’s the process that’s important? What if my individual contribution is actually insignificant in the larger scheme of things?”
Lesson Two: Sometimes you have to fight off beetles that try to eat you
Ants, like office workers, have to deal with a lot of threats. Sometimes the caterpillar corpse is actually a parasite that will eat all your larvae. Sometimes other ants tunnel into your nest to enslave you and your sisters. And sometimes, a ground beetle will come to your nest entrance and just start munching on ants.
In South Africa, the “oogpister beetle” eats ants and metabolizes the acids from these ants to form a toxic concoction that it uses to ward off predators. “Oogpister” in Afrikaans means “Eye-pisser”. Because that’s what they do. Eat ants and piss in predator eyes.
Anyway, ants have a dedicated caste of soldiers who are supposed to do the fighting, but if they can’t handle it, the workers will get in on the action too. So if a worker is fighting an oogpister beetle, you know things have already gone south and ants are getting turned into eye piss.
Ant tip #2: Everyone has their specialized role in the company, so if they’re asking you to take on more responsibility, shit has hit the fan! Just bite the rag between your mandibles and hope you don’t get turned into eye piss too.
Lesson Three: If you find a competing corporation whose culture is driven by cut-throat competition and conformity, then for God’s sakes, crush them before they get a foothold
The Argentine ants were born in conflict. The cradle of their evolution were sparse trees above flood plains, and every time the floods would recede, the ants would pour down from the trees, fighting one another over every resource they could get, and retreating back into the trees when the floods quickly returned — waiting, plotting their next campaign. Their workers are cheap and flimsy; their networks are loose and shallow; their queens are common, cut-throat, and clones. In a word, they evolved to expand as fast as possible, whenever possible, and take no prisoners.
When humans cut down their trees and let them onto their trading boats, the Argentine ants found new land — and softer competition. And they took complete advantage of it. They have expanded across the world.
It’s not simply their incredibly violent ways that make them hard to eradicate. They are remarkably uniform. Argentine ants that have landed as far as California, Spain, and Japan are all closely related and will recognize each other as allies, or even share resources with one another. As a result, they form massive supercolonies that span continental coastlines, starving out native ants and ruining local ecosystems from the ground up. Argentine ants are said to be “[responsible for] the recent severe decline in coastal horned lizards in southern California.”
In other news, all the cool kids tell me that Uber has a toxic culture and unethical business practices. Who am I to disagree with them?
Ant tip #3: Cooperation with cut-throat, monoclonal cultures is suicide. Any culture that promotes aggressive behavior and conformity within their own ranks must be crushed before they destroy the local ecosystem — and you with it.
Lesson Four: The CEO’s job is to continuously churn out more siblings for you and your sisters, not to tell you what to do
A common misconception about ants is that the queen is the boss of the ants, or that the ants have some sort of collective hive mind. None of this is true. The queen does not command any ants, but is prioritized as the reproductive organ of the colony. Ants do not have collective hive mind, but mindlessly just run around doing stuff, and somehow great stuff happens.
Corporations are exactly like this. There is no hive mind. There is no leader. Just the CEO, who is also your mother, who is as related to you as your sisters are, laying your sisters’ eggs in her office, which will get tended to and expand the power and might of the colony.
Ant tip #4: Next time your boss tells you to stop reading articles on the internet and get back to work, you should respond, “No, YOU get back to work! Laying my eggs!”