Corporate Jungle

Not so long ago I was on a two-day hike through the Costa Rican jungle. Within hours we had witnessed an abundance of wildlife. We witnessed plants and animals of all sorts living seamlessly together. Every species has its own place and function in this ecosystem and does what it’s supposed to, at least when us humans don’t interfere.

When I was hiking and feeling overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of my surroundings I started to think about the phrase ‘corporate jungle.’ The corporate jungle is a topic I am all too familiar with. Through my work as a leadership and change consultant, I have had to navigate all sorts of different ‘jungles.’ Most of us who work in corporate environments will immediately understand what corporate jungle means.

The phrase corporate jungle signifies a metaphorical space. This is a space where you are at risk of all kinds of creatures. These creatures can kill in an instant or slowly nibble away at you, and each of them have specific traits to be wary of. The snake/reptile and the ape/gorilla. Both represent specific styles of behavior that we can easily relate to as humans.

The snake (reptile)

When we refer to an individual as a snake, what comes to mind is duplicitous and conniving. These individuals are conscious of their social surroundings and can manipulate them.

These people may not hold senior positions in the corporate hierarchy but act mainly via informal channels in a stealthy way. These individuals have informal power but are hard to detect and even harder to manage. One thing that stands out is that corporate snakes are intelligent and they maneuver through the jungle like chess pieces moved masterfully across a board.

The real thing

In the real-world jungle snakes and reptiles exhibit completely different behavior. They are by far the oldest living creatures on earth and have been around since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Although they have evolved, their primordial instincts remain very simple and come down to just a handful of tasks: eating, mating and self-preservation. In no way are they considered social. The structure of the reptilian brain is designed to ensure that reptiles satisfy their instincts. Nothing more, nothing less.

Reptiles devote almost all of their time to energy preservation. That’s why they hardly move, can go for weeks without food and never prey on other animals unless they are hungry or threatened. In that sense they are completely predictable and as such are the complete opposite of the corporate snake.

The ape or gorilla 

When we refer to someone as an ape or gorilla we often think of those managers who are all about power. They are constantly struggling for the highest place in the pecking order. The tactics they use are crude and their ultimate objective is to be the most powerful.

Their typical behavior is to strong-arm and intimidate others and they often use scare-tactics such as threatening others with a loss of position, status or career advancement.
The real thing

Gorillas and other apes or monkeys in the real jungle are more sophisticated than those that roam the corporate jungle. They are highly evolved mammals that live in complex social groups. From an evolutionary perspective they are our closest living relatives.

What does this all mean?

As an organizational development professional I’m concerned about running organizations. One thing that stands out for me is that newly founded companies, organizations that truly stem from the digital age, are never designed with the use of organizational charts and they thus do not evolve into corporate jungles. Instead, they evolve into living ecosystems in which everybody that inhabits that ecosystem has a clear role to play. There is no need for mechanistic solutions to organizational design. These organizations are more like real jungles than corporate jungles.

It’s time for organizational professionals and managers to leave their comfort zones and start to branch out and look at different areas of expertise. For instance, biology and network science have a lot to teach us about traditional organizations and this knowledge can be used to help us transform from factory-like structures to living ecosystems.

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