What We Can Learn From Chickens

In her recent TED talk, Margaret Heffernan, an entrepreneur, former CEO of five companies and an author, discussed an experiment on productivity by evolutionary biologist, William Muir at Purdue University. Muir was interested in productivity, something that concerns all of us. To examine this topic, he devised a beautiful experiment to increase egg production in chickens. He first selected the most productive hen - the one that laid the largest number of eggs within each cage to breed the next generation of hens. In other words, he identified the “star” employee. Then, he took the star egg layers and put them together in one cage and tried to breed from this group of best in cage winners—like an NHL hockey team.

For the other part of the experiment, Muir took the most productive cage as whole unit - in other words, he selected the entire group of chickens that had displayed the most productive egg laying as team - even though many of those chickens would have been less individually productive than the stars of other cages, and tried to breed them.

So what did he find?

You might think the first, more individualized method should work better.  After all, it is individual chickens who lay eggs, so selecting the best individuals directly should be more efficient than selecting the best groups, which might include some individual duds.

However, the results told a completely different story. In the “all stars” cage of chickens that were selected as the cream of the crop in their own group, there were rebellions and all but three hens were murdered! The three survivors had plucked each other during their incessant attacks and were now nearly featherless. What happened to cause this? The most productive individuals had achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of their cage mates.

The first method caused egg productivity to steeply decline, even though the most productive hens were chosen each and every generation. On the other hand, the “ best whole cage” team went on to greater glories. As a group, they got on well together, and caused egg productivity to increase 160 percent in six generations.

What can these chickens really teach us? Is your company composed of superchickens?

It is clear that a team approach can produce better results, even though individuals in that team might be less stellar than the top in other groups. Individually, you do not have to know everything; you just have to work among people to get the job the done.

Sounds obvious right?  Are you running your company along the superchicken model?  We assume that picking the superstars, the brightest, and the most knowledgeable in the room and giving them the power is the key in achieving success. But is it? Is there a better way?

Some companies have began to ban coffee cups at desks because they want people to hang out around the coffee machine and talk to each other. These companies are starting to value collaboration. When the going gets tough, people need the social support, and they need to know who to ask for help. It is about bringing out the best in others. What is your company doing to foster collaboration and social connections? Check out some of our workplace strategies for new ideas.

We should not expect to solve our problems if we pick out the few supermen or superwomen, because the result will be the same as Muir’s experiment—carnage, with increased rates of workplace stress and mental health challenges. We need everybody on the team, because when we accept that everybody has value and work together – anything is possible.


Relevant References

Heffernan, M. (2015). Why  it’s time to forget the pecking order at work. TedWomen. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/margaret_heffernan_why_it_s_time_to_forget_the_pecking_order_at_work/transcript?language=en#t-923561

Muir, W. M. (2013). Genetics and the Behaviour of Chickens: Welfare and Productivity. In Genetics and the Behaviour of Domestic Animals, 2nd Edition. (Vol. 2, pp. 1-30).