The working life has its share of animal metaphors. It’s dog-eat-dog – a rat race. Your company may be a dark horse, or a cash cow. Sometimes you just need to put lipstick on the pig. You’ve got to survive in a bull market or a bear market. Stop me now – I seem to be beating a dead horse.
Now there’s a new one, direct from the barnyard. The Super Chicken management model was inspired by Purdue University evolutionary biologist, William Muir. Starting with a flock of average chickens, Muir identified the more productive ones – those who laid the most eggs – and separated them into what he called his “superflock.” Over the course of six generations, he continued to select the egg-laying champions for this special flock. “Super Chickens,” indeed. While the average flock ended the experiment plump, healthy, and productive, only three chickens even survived the superflock. They survived after pecking their companions to death.
Muir was studying birds, not people, but the analogy couldn’t be cooped up. Businesswoman, author, and lecturer Margaret Heffernan took the stage in a TED Talk comparing the Super Chicken experiment to companies that reward individual productivity over teamwork and collaboration. You can see how the image of being pecked to death resonates with people who’ve experienced energy-killing dysfunction in the workplace. A company full of human Super Chickens ultimately saps productivity, according to Heffernan, as they put great energy into assuring the failure of others in order to personally succeed.
Rather than being inspired by a superstar colleague, “average chicken” employees can end up losing their motivation as a variety of very human reactions set in. In the face of a powerhouse personality, team members will start to hold back new ideas, assuming their more aggressive colleagues will come up with something better. Or even more insidious, they may have experienced their ideas being usurped by a Super Chicken who claims it for their own. The Super Chickens – those willing to metaphorically peck others to death – will consciously or unconsciously devalue the work of others in order to stay on top of the proverbial haystack.
There is a better way. The answer is a work environment that fosters collaboration and collective – rather than individual – productivity. This means hiring the kind of people who don’t just give lip service to teamwork. Those who can celebrate group achievements without worrying how their own reputation will be burnished. Margaret Heffernan calls yesterday’s leaders “heroic soloists.” Modern leaders, on the other hand, create “conditions…in which everyone can do their most courageous thinking together.”
Like any cultural shift, changing a Super Chicken company into one that emphasizes collaborative productivity isn’t going to be easy. So much needs to be re-considered. Training. Management policies. Compensation schemes. Even the physical environment, like breakrooms, team workspaces, and departmental adjacencies. And it’s ongoing. Management at the highest levels needs to buy into and model the culture.
We should only go so far when it comes to comparing ourselves to barnyard animals. But just as any school kid knows the chicken evolved from the dinosaur, we working humans can evolve as well.
This article was written as a blog post for AptoZen, an Intrax company.