September 15, 2016

How can we find a better way to work? Don’t put all your eggs in one basket!

In her TED talk ‘Forget the Pecking order at work’, Margaret Heffernan spends the first few minutes talking about chickens. And “superchickens”. The businesswoman, author and keynote speaker says that for the past 50 years most organisations have been based around the “superchicken” model. What does she mean?

She means that organisations have been primarily interested in their “superchickens” – those people who they think have the most potential, who have the highest IQ, those expected to bring in the best results. And they have nurtured, promoted and empowered them to the detriment of the rest of the workforce and the organisation. “We’ve thought that success is achieved by picking the superstars, the brightest men – or occasionally women – in the room and giving them all the resources and all the power,” says Heffernan.

Does it work? Not according to research carried out by William Muir, an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University in the US and then cited by Heffernan in her talk. Muir’s research focused on chickens and productivity. He wanted to know if he could make chickens more productive and so he went down the selection route. Firstly, he chose an average flock of chickens and then let them be for six generations. Secondly, he picked out the most productive chickens (those that laid the most eggs individually). These are the “superchickens”. He gathered them together into a “superflock” and each generation he again handpicked the most productive for breeding.

What do you suppose he discovered, six generations down the line? That the “superchickens” were still a “superflock” and had laid a whole load more eggs than the mere average chickens? Actually, no. The average chickens were doing well: they were healthy and egg production had soared. The “superchickens”, however – there were only three left. “They’d pecked the rest to death”, says Heffernan.

As Heffernan relates this research in talks around the world, she says there’s always plenty of people for whom the story immediately resonates. They say their company is a superflock. Or their country is a superflock. What’s the result? “If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live,” continued Heffernan.

How can we find a better way to work? That’s the holy grail of HR and increasingly the holy grail of many organisations. In her talk, Heffernan goes on to discuss further research, this time by the American research university, MIT. A team at MIT drafted in hundreds of volunteers, separated them out into groups and gave them very difficult problems to solve. Some groups performed significantly better than other groups, as MIT expected to be the case. What MIT wanted to establish was whether there were any common characteristics of those high performing groups.

Were they groups containing “superchickens”? Those with very high IQ? Or groups that achieved a high IQ score collectively? No, there were three characteristics common to the high performing groups and none of them related to IQ. Instead, they were that:

– they displayed high degrees of social sensitivity to each other, as measured by the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, which relates to empathy
– they gave roughly equal airtime to each other
– they had more women in them

The highest performing groups demonstrated strong levels of connectedness to each other and allowed everyone to contribute and be productive.

That’s why Heffernan thinks we so desperately need to abandon the “superchicken” model, abandon the pecking order and allow everyone to achieve maximum productivity, individually and collectively.