Volume 25: Mutualism

RoyIn times like these, I try to avoid the word “hate,” so I’ll say it this way: I greatly dislike free rides. I don’t like getting them (and cheating someone else,) and I don’t like giving them.

This is why I’ve made Mutualism the last of the three relationship types that I’ll discuss in this newsletter series. Where parasitism is a relationship in which one member benefits at the expense of another, and commensalism is a relationship in which one member benefits while the other isn’t benefited or harmed, mutualism is a relationship in which everyone benefits.

Doesn’t that sound great? Everyone wins.

In Mutualism, there are no free rides, as both sides take something from the interaction.

Personal Life:

Mutualism can be found throughout our everyday personal lives.

The relationship between you and the waiter at your favorite restaurant, for example: you benefit from exemplary service, you’re never without a cold beverage or anything else you need, and the waiter benefits from the generous tip you leave.

A healthy marriage is a mutualistic relationship. In theory, both parties contribute something to the other, whether that’s financial contributions, contributions in the form of taking care of the home and kids, or even just emotional support, everyone does their part and all parties benefit. (Some marriages can, of course, fall into the other categories of relationships, but that’s a discussion for another venue.)

Professional Life:

The goal for every employee/employer relationship is to be a mutualistic one. Employers need the support of their employees in order to function and achieve Hard Results in the form of profit, and employees need the support of their employers in the form of Mutual Respect and proper compensation.

A mutualistic relationship at work is one in which everyone feels validated and produces to hold up their end of the bargain.

From the Employee side, they ideally get a safe work environment, where they are compensated appropriately, not forced to work (too much) more than they want, and are respected by their superiors.

From the Employer side, they ideally get Hard Results in the form of as much quality product, and therefore profit, as possible.

As we all know too well, it doesn’t always work out this way, though.

When It’s Not Mutualism:

It’s easy to tell when a work relationship isn’t a Mutualistic one.

When an employer is taking advantage of employees, the signs can be pretty obvious. They are generally overworked, underpaid and the employee generally feels disrespected by the whole thing pretty quickly. Maybe the company is skimping on safety checks, making for a dangerous work place. Maybe they’re denying vacation. Maybe they’re scheduling the employee for a shift they can’t work for whatever personal reason. In any of these instances, the relationship has shifted away from mutualism.

But the same can be true the opposite direction. If a company is paying an employee very well, but that employee isn’t performing up to expectations, that’s not a mutualistic relationship either. It doesn’t matter if the employee is failing to meet expectations due to lack of ability, laziness or other, external factors, the employee can be in the wrong in a relationship too.


Just like every piece from me, this newsletter ends with a simple homework assignment: Think about your relationships. Are the ones you consider mutualistic, really mutualistic? Are you still receiving, and giving, the benefits you once were from your relationships? If not, what changed? It doesn’t take much for a relationship that was once mutualistic to slide into parasitism when one side stops producing to help the other.

That said, sometimes it also can take just a short Open and Honest conversation to turn a parasitic relationship into one that benefits everyone involved.

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