Each of us has a circle of trusted friends we turn to for advice. We all belong to at least one tribe. In our experience, high performers who are both strategic and discerning about who makes up their tribe see returns above and beyond their investments.

Before I explain why we need to curate our social circles, teams, and organizations, we need to understand a modelling experiment about a colony of birds infected by parasites. It may sound strange but stick with me on this one.

A number of years ago, I read about an experiment in Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene. Our team recently started using the story of this experiment with clients. Many of our clients have told us that the story has helped them redefine how they think about their company.

Dawkins tells the tale of two bird colonies, both infested by a deadly parasite that sits on their foreheads. The only way a bird can survive is if another plucks the parasite from its forehead.

In the first colony, birds adopt one of two strategies. Members of the first bird cohort help any bird that approaches. Dawkins called these birds suckers. Suckers always pluck parasites from the heads of approaching birds. These birds help other birds, even if when they don’t return the favor. Members of the second cohort allow other birds to pluck parasites off their foreheads, never returning the favor. Dawkins called these birds cheats.

He ran a variety of computer-simulated scenarios and found that the entire colony eventually died when cheats outnumbered suckers. Since none of the birds is able to find help before they succumb to the parasite, the entire colony dies. Additionally, where suckers outnumber cheats, the colony of cheats begins to grow because they are surrounded by suckers. In other words, suckers enable the survival of cheats at their own peril. Eventually, as with the first scenario, cheats outnumber suckers and the colony ultimately dies.

In the second bird colony, some birds adopted a third strategy.

Dawkins calls these birds grudgers. Grudgers remember how birds have treated them in the past and mirror that behavior. If a bird doesn’t pluck the parasite from their head, the next time the grudger encounters that bird, they don’t reciprocate. If, however, a bird does remove the parasite from the grudgers’ head, the grudger returns the favor on their next pass. We can think of this new strategy as a tit-for-tat approach.

Birds essentially become cheats to cheats and suckers to suckers. Again, Dawkins ran a variety of scenarios with this new strategy and found that while colonies with grudgers had the best chance of survival, the colony collapses whenever the population of cheats gets too large. In these experiments, colonies can avoid extinction only when they can keep the number of cheats low. Cheats flourish whenever there are too many suckers, putting the entire colony at risk. Grudgers, with their “do onto others as they have done unto you” approach, is essential to the survival of any colony.

Lately, we have started sharing the allegory of Suckers, Cheats and Grudgers with our clients and it has completely transformed how they think about their businesses. Cheats within your organization or social circle can be the death knell of profitability, culture, morale or effectiveness. Cheats within your social circle can draw so many resources from you that you feel weighted down.

Many of our clients have begun to design their work to keep cheats from ever entering their organizations or social circle. When we let cheats into our network, we put ourselves at risk. Consequently, it is important that we curate our network, so we’re not suddenly surrounded by cheats.

Popular Wharton Business School professor and author Adam Grant have done considerable research on creating high-performing organizations. In his best-selling book Give and Take, he divides people into givers, matchers, and takers. In his research, he finds that “The negative impact of a taker on culture is usually double or triple the positive impact of a giver.” Grant offers advice on how you might keep these selfish people from entering your team. The first thing he suggests is that in interviews, you ask people to provide you with “the names of four people whose careers they have fundamentally improved.” Cheaters or takers usually give the names of four people more influential than themselves.

The second thing he suggests is to get references not just from people they report to, but also from their peers or people who report to them. You want to avoid hiring people who are only interested in managing the impression of those who are influential.

The third approach to hiring people who contribute to maintaining and sustaining the high performance of your team is to seek to hire those willing to share credit. Avoid people who attribute failure to others and success to themselves. Ask questions that encourage prospective employees to explain how mistakes and successes happened on projects they have worked on. Pay attention to how they explain these mistakes and successes. Stay away from those who use words like me and I for successes and blame others for mistakes made. Look for people who share credit for both successes and failures. What’s particularly important is to pay attention to how they explain what they learned from these experiences.

Stephen Covey is quoted as saying, “The more people rationalize cheating, the more it becomes a culture of dishonesty. And that can become a vicious, downward cycle. Because suddenly, if everyone else is cheating, you feel a need to cheat, too.” When we let these cheats into our organizations and communities, we put ourselves at risk. There is no way to guarantee that you’re not going to hire selfish people, but there are ways of limiting the number of cheats we allow into our organization or social circle. Once we identify someone as a cheat, we need to work to get that person off our team or out of our social circle.

A key component of a high-quality relationship is reciprocity. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. You pluck a parasite from my forehead and I do the same for you. High Performers surround themselves with people they can trust. They keep cheats out of their teams and social circles. The more we know we’re surrounded by people who reciprocate, the more we feel like we can take risks and innovate.

The irony here is that selfishly protecting yourself from cheats is, in fact, the generous thing to do for all those in your social circle.


Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, USA.

Grant, A. (2013). Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Penguin.