Beware the superchickens

International businesswoman Margaret Heffernan took to the TED stage a few months ago in Monterey, CA, to deliver an impassioned plea to business to remove the ‘superchicken’ culture. ‘Success comes from collaboration, not from competition’, she implored.

In the video above she begins with the evolutionary scientist William Muir’s experiment with chickens at Purdue University. He studied their productivity (by counting the number of eggs they laid), separating the best performers from the normal. After 6 generations, what did we find? What did the coop of ‘superchickens’ look like, and how were the normal chickens getting on?

Well, the normal ones were all plump and fine, and in fact had increased production nicely. Meanwhile, the more productive ones (the superchickens) were a dispirited lot, what was left of them. Only 3 were alive, as their aggression and over-competitiveness had led to the others being pecked to death. Not many eggs were being laid.

What does this tell us about organising people at work? Quite a lot, it would seem. In studies on human productivity in teams (at MIT), the best team results came from groups not with super stars in them, but those that had 3 things:

  1. High degree of social empathy (team members looked out for each other);
  2. They gave roughly equal time to each other (everyone’s voice was heard, and valued);
  3. They had more women in them (!)

Social connectedness was the most important element.

Does this sound like your workplace? Do you have a superchicken environment, with some high performing alpha people running around roughshod, or do you have a true team environment where everyone’s input is valued and used? Real teamwork, you might say.

I would argue that if you have superchickens pecking each other’s eyes out (figuratively of course, I expect this literally does not happen), it’s important to get them out. Before too long they will start to alter the culture of the organisation, play to their own rules, and be almost impossible to manage. The amount of money they bring in, or work they do, will dictate to the organisation in such an extent that they will make the group beholden to them, not the other way around. Everyone else will hate the environment. Results will drop off. Good people will leave.

If the superchicken(s) can’t be retrained (some can), then they best just flock off. Organisations have enough issues and problems to deal with these days without waging internal battles among their staff. We need to work together, respect each other, and the leader at the top needs to insist on this as the approach. The best results always come from collaboration, not from competition.

As Margaret says: “We have big problems to solve. They can’t be left to a few supermen and superwomen. Now we need everybody. It is only when we accept that everybody has value, that we will liberate the energy and imagination and momentum we need to create the best beyond measure.”


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