The Rise & Fall of the Superchicken


Are you a superchicken? Are you a member of a superflock? Someone recently sent me a link to a 2015 TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan… it was about SUPERCHICKENS! What is a superchicken you ask? Here is the short version:

Like most managers and companies, evolutionary biologist William Muir was interested in productivity. His studies were focused on chickens. In his experiment, he selected an average group of chickens and left them alone for six generations. From this group he selected the highest producing chickens “the superchickens” to create a superflock. Each generation he would choose only the superchickens to breed. After another 6 generations he found that the “average” group, the first group, was flourishing and egg production had increased. The superflock however had diminished to 3, all the others had been pecked to death.

Does this sound familiar? Do you work in an environment like this? Are you a superchicken stepping on top of others to succeed or are you being pecked to death?

Heffernan discusses how the “superchicken model” has been used to build teams, organisations and even societies for the last 50 years. By selecting superstars and putting them into a team together we thought we could succeed because these superstars would encourage, inspire and drive each other to be even greater, to shine brighter. We were wrong.

Look, I’m the first to say, “a little bit of competition is healthy.” I’m a competitive person. In the recruitment world it is not only encouraged it is essential. However, studies have proven that not only does the superchicken theory not work, it provides results counter to those desired. The time of the superchicken has come to an end.

Heffernan sites a MIT study that found that the groups that worked best together exhibited the following three things:

  • Social sensitivity (empathy) towards each other
  • Everyone had and gave equal time and contribution
  • There were more women in the successful groups than in the groups that failed

So, what does this mean in the real world, outside of an experiment? What do we need to encourage, build and implement to create teams that work well together and deliver success for an organisation?

1. Support & Safety

n environment where everyone feels connected will foster a safe and supportive environment. As Heffernan mentions social capital compounds so encouraging a social connectedness within your team will allow a free and open flow of ideas and communication. An environment where people not only ask for help but are encouraged to do so to find the best solution and create a great outcome.

2. Equity and equality

We all want to be heard, contribute and feel valued. It’s part of being human. A team where everyone’s voice is equal where no one is more important than anyone else will not only deliver these things but also deliver great ideas. As Heffernan said, “Companies don’t have ideas, people do.” With no superchickens, pecking everyone else into submission a team can encourage and support each other’s contributions, have great ideas and refine them as a team.

3. Diversity

Yes, more women! Studies have shown time and time again that having a gender balance leads to better results for an organisation. But it isn’t just about gender. It's also diversity of age, race, religion and sexuality. Diversity provides a variety of perspectives, ideas and opinions. Establishing a diversity program that creates teams that are more than just one thing will help build success.

Instead of fueling competition which can lead to conflict, we need to start focusing on teams that will work well together, teams that are connected and empowered. People who work well together and can work as a team will deliver results for an organisation.

The rise of the superchicken has come to an end, long live the average chicken!

Here is Margaret Heffernan's TED Talk.