Why You Should Forget the Pecking Order at Work!

Following a weekend that saw New Zealand sporting teams reign supreme, this article from Andrew Nuttall, which ran in last month’s local law society publication ‘Canterbury Tales’, seems particularly relevant!

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Wayne Smith speak about his rugby coaching career and some of the factors that had contributed to the All Blacks successes.  He cited a study about Super Chickens which led me to Margaret Heffernan’s Ted talk.

Margaret Heffernan talked about an evolutionary Biologist at Purdue University named William Muir who studied chickens.  He was interested in productivity, which I think is something of a concern to us all, but it’s easy to measure in chickens because you just have to count the eggs!  He wanted to know what could make his chickens more productive, so he devised a simple experiment.  Chickens live in groups, so first of all he selected an average flock and left them alone for six generations.  He then created a second group comprising the individually most productive chickens. The flock of super chickens was bred using the most productive birds in each generation.

What did Muir discover after six generations?  The first group of “average chickens” were doing just fine.  They were all plump and fully feathered and egg production had increased dramatically.  Sadly the second group of “super chickens” had not done so well. All but three were dead as many had been pecked to death.  The individual “super chickens” had only achieved their successes by suppressing the productivity of other chickens.

Margaret Heffernan, a successful CEO, entrepreneur, writer and speaker contends that over the last fifty years many organisations and some societies have been run along the Super Chicken model.  Too often it has been assumed that success was achieved by picking super stars, the brightest people, and giving them all the resources and all the power. All too frequently the result has just been the same as in William Muir’s Super Chicken experiment.  Aggression, disfunction and waste.

Margaret Heffernan believes that the most successful teams do not necessarily have members with the highest individual IQ’s or the highest aggregate IQ.  She suggests that the most important ingredients to creating successful organisations are groups that have a high degree of social sensitivity and empathy towards each other. Successful groups give equal time to each other so that no one voice dominates, but neither are there any passengers.  

What can we do in the workplace?

  1. Create a culture of helpfulness and get to know each other.
  2. Ban coffee cups at desks and hang out in the office cafe and talk to each other. Synchronise coffee breaks to help facilitate.
  3. Look for people who are outstanding collaborators and build teams where everyone matters.

Franklin D Roosevelt once wrote.

“Competition has shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but co-operation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.”


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