Super Chickens

By Adam Sidbury
Tuesday 11th October 2016 12:43

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With chickens it’s easier to measure productivity than with your workforce; you just count the eggs.

So when Margaret Heffernan described a piece of research conducted by William Muir at Purdue University in Indiana, we were absolutely fascinated. What you are about to read may change your views on recruitment, employees and superstars forever.

The research contrasted two groups. The first was an average group of chickens who were left alone to do their thing (lay eggs) for six generations. The second group were the super-chickens; only the top performers, the most productive, were selected for breeding.

The results after six generations were not what you might expect: the first group were healthy chickens and their productivity had increased considerably; the second group, the super-chickens, were all dead apart from three, who had pecked the others to death. The super-chickens had only obtained their superstar status by suppressing the productivity of the others.

The immediate question of course is ‘how relevant is this to humans in business?’ and what Heffernen describes next is an experiment at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to study precisely this point. And the results supported the chicken research – although fortunately there were no deaths. Hundreds of volunteers were put into groups and given difficult problems to solve. The high achieving groups were not those that had one or two people with very high IQs; the best groups had three characteristics:

1. They showed high degrees of social sensitivity to each other
2. They gave roughly equal time to one another with no one person dominating
3. They had more women - the groups were more diverse

Heffernan then went to study auditions at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and was surprised to see that the teachers weren’t looking for individual brilliance but rather for ‘the drama’ that took place between students.

It seems that ‘Social Capital’ is what is going to get businesses ahead.

So whilst money erodes social connectedness, creating an environment, where individuals are encouraged to work together, share ideas and contribute together, will enhance social capital and the business will perform better.

There are a number of organisations that have started to embrace this model in recent years and recognise teamwork and collaboration over heroic qualities and stardom. Often the best ideas don’t come from the boardroom and all the leader/follower model does is to suppress innovation.

How many organisations do you know where development and progress has come to a standstill as the employees wait for the ‘management’ to announce the latest set of structural changes? The business stagnates as the competitors move ahead.

Don’t encourage super-chickens.

Take Aways
• Recruit and promote team players
• Avoid super-chickens
• Nurture collaboration
• Create physical and social environments that aid collaboration
• Retain good people as time together will improve productivity exponentially

Margaret Heffernan: Forget the pecking order at work. Ted Talk:

William Muir Ph.D, Purdue University: Group Selection Theory:

Social Capital: Term first used in 1890, Wikipedia:

Royal Academy of Dramatic Art: RADA

DigiFi animation: