Building a Great Business By Learning from Super Chickens

March 24, 2023
by Daniel Klein

Companies adore employees who stand out. Whether it’s closing sales, turning projects around, or creating impressive achievements, a “star” employee can draw praise, attention, and esteem when compared to their non-super peers. 

Additionally, star employees can hold more sway in decision-making, have their ideas and suggestions accepted quicker, and more easily integrate their plans into the business. While this sort of individual standout mentality is often celebrated and incentivized in the modern workplace and academic systems, individual success and competition come at a cost. Enter the super chicken analogy. 

What Is the Super Chicken Analogy?

If you’re unfamiliar, the super chicken analogy addresses the role that standout employees can take within their company’s “pecking order.” It references an experiment by Purdue University researcher William Muir, in which he observed the productivity rates of high-performing (laying) chickens. 

While the super chicken analogy has been around since the 1990s, it rose to public attention in 2015, when writer and businesswoman Margaret Heffernan referenced it in her 2015 TED Talk, “Why It’s Time to Forget the Pecking Order at Work.” In her talk, Heffernan recounts Dr. Muir’s study and examines the parallels found in many modern companies. 

 In the original super chicken study, Dr. Muir dedicated his research to group behavior and measuring productivity in chickens. Seeking to improve egg-laying productivity, he separated his chickens into two groups. One consisted of chickens that produced an average amount of eggs, while the other was made up exclusively of high-producing individuals. 

 Contrary to what you may have guessed, after allowing each flock to progress for six generations, Muir found that the “super flock” fared far worse than the average flock. Overall, the average group was “plump, fully feathered, and egg production had increased dramatically.” In the super flock, however, all but three of the chickens were dead. Competition between birds had led to the top three chickens pecking the others to death.

As Heffernan extrapolates, the success of the super chickens came from suppressing the productivity of the rest of the chickens in the flock. Competition may have increased the productivity levels of one particular bird, but the output (and health) of the flock as a whole suffered dramatically. 

Human vs. Avian Super Chickens 

If you’ve read this far, you may be wondering how fair it is to draw a direct comparison between chickens and presumably civilized, mature humans. Precisely because of this question, researchers at MIT devised their own study inspired by Muir’s chickens. 

 Conducted with human volunteers, the MIT study sought to understand why some academic and work groups are more successful and productive than others. Volunteers were segmented into groups and asked to solve a series of challenging equations. 

True to the super chicken analogy, groups with the most intelligent members or the highest collective IQ were not the most successful. Instead, groups that had good team dynamics and more equal divisions of speaking time performed far better overall. 

These findings don’t exist in a vacuum, either. A report by Frost and Sullivan found that a company’s collaboration index increases sales by 27% and improves customer satisfaction ratings by 41%. Similarly, Bonfyre reports that 77% of employees say relationships with coworkers are among the top drivers of employee engagement in the workplace. The report also states that those connections significantly impact company loyalty, job satisfaction, productivity, and prosocial behaviors like collaboration or camaraderie. 

The effects of collaboration on company success statistics

Collaboration can prove fruitful for business relationships and revenue

Understanding Super Chickens in the Workplace

Despite the popular misconception in many performance-oriented industries — reinforced by persistent stereotypes and pop-culture reverence — cultivating competition between employees is not an effective way to foster sustainable success. 

As Heffernan emphasized in her talk, the primary lesson companies can draw from the super chicken analogy is the danger of prioritizing individual performers as opposed to building cohesive teams. This is a particularly pertinent lesson for the workplace today. 

Beginning at the earliest levels of school, many people are taught the notion that the only way to make an impact or become valuable is to compete and distinguish ourselves from our peers. Success, we are told, is a zero-sum game. Earning praise, making the starting lineup, and getting accepted into the best schools all rely on us outdoing others. 

 This dogma persists in the workplace. While having a healthy power structure of management is essential to running a business, the pecking orders that develop within teams are often based on conspicuous personal achievement and perceived value rather than job roles. This often leads to “super chickens” in the company rising in the pecking order at the expense of others and, ultimately, the team. 

Consistently, research has backed up MIT’s findings. Teams that work together better outperform those made up of superstars and are more resilient through adversity. As trust builds between employees and management, overall productivity begins to increase significantly.

Meme of "team player" chickens versus "star player" chickens

The “Team” Mentality VS. The “Me” Mentality

Integrating the Super Chicken Analogy into Your Leadership Practices

As great as all of this research may sound, actually implementing it into your daily operations can be a challenge. Recognizing and rewarding meaningful contributions by team members is a good practice, but finding ways to do so without creating an environment for super chickens takes forethought. 

Let’s take a look at some concrete ways that you can develop a healthy pecking order in your company. 

Always Be a Team Player 

For managers, it’s natural to feel like the star of the operation. As important as it is to maintain a structured hierarchy, however, managers are not excluded from the need to be team players. Granting others the space to express their opinions and being available when your team needs help fosters an environment where staff members feel supported and empowered to contribute. 

Another way to be a team player is to stay vigilant of inequities throughout your staff. Some departments may require more resources, but be mindful of favoring star teams or issuing more rewards and recognition to specific team members. 

Foster a “One Team, One Dream” Mentality

When working on projects, different teams are often given tasks based on their capabilities and interests. When done correctly, this can allow employees to focus on their strengths, each contributing to success. If there is too much focus on the achievements of one person or team, however, this can lead to fragmentation within the organization. 

Rather than having one team or employee be the featured story of your organization, emphasize their value vis a vis the rest of your team. Enabling collaboration and highlighting how each group’s successes contribute to your collective goals lets you celebrate wins in a healthier way. This is especially important when some people or teams are more forward-facing, with easily laudable achievements that can overshadow the work of other, more behind-the-scenes contributors. 

Encourage Collaboration

In many companies, finding solutions to a companywide or client issue isn’t a team effort. These tasks typically fall to the expertise of department heads, team leaders, or upper management, resulting in missed opportunities. If given a chance to collaborate with the rest of the team, even your new and less experienced employees can surprise you. 

As Heffernan points out in her talk, those open to collaboration often find success and enjoy a long career. This is because collaborators can get to know each other, inspiring and influencing their team to consider the world and the problem at hand differently. 

 Another instrumental trait in a successful collaborative team is helpfulness. Many of us think that to be helpful, you must be well-versed in a topic. This simply isn’t true. You only need to work amongst people who are good at getting and giving help, and the rest will come. Again, what drives helpfulness is employees getting to know each other and building a level of rapport that aids in collaborating on brilliant ideas. 

Treat Employees Like Equals

Although your employees may not hold managerial roles, they should still be seen as equals and not only subordinates. All of your company’s positioning, resources, and processes are only useful because of the people who make them work. Treating your employees as equals and not by their hierarchal status can have a tangible impact on productivity. 

 A recent study published in the Journal of Labor Economics found that happy employees worked an average of 12% harder than their unhappy peers. Another report by the Social Marketing Foundation found that the impact of positive employee mental health could result in a productivity boost as high as 20%. 

Incorporate Social Building Exercises

As humans, we all have a fundamental need to belong and connect with others. Lacking these interpersonal relationships can harm an employee’s morale and overall health. Whether you manage an in-office or fully remote team, there are countless ways you can incorporate social building exercises into your daily operations and become a better leader. 

 Implementing opportunities for your team to build social capital turns good ideas into great ones and has real ROI potential. In fact, according to the National Business Research Institute, allowing employees to form meaningful relationships with their colleagues can boost job satisfaction by a whopping 50%. 

In her TED Talk, Heffernan discussed the success of a company that decided to synchronize its coffee breaks so that employees could have time to connect with each other. This small change, aimed at encouraging social capital, led to profits increasing by $15 million and employee satisfaction rising by 10%

Statistic next to a cup of coffee

Putting aside a few minutes a day to talk to your team may just result in increased profits and higher employee satisfaction

Understand Your Impact on Your Team’s Power Dynamics

As a manager, it makes sense to want to be involved in every step of your team’s process. While investing directly in your team’s efforts is positive, too much direct involvement can lead to stunted creativity and collaboration. The constant presence of oversight from superiors tends to shift the focus of team members away from resolving the problem and instead onto gaining approval and recognition within the hierarchy. 

 One brilliant example of the benefits of stepping back appears in the success of the “Montreal Protocol” environmental program. A team was tasked with finding a substitute that would phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) creating holes in the ozone layer. During the project, one of the principles expressed by the head of engineering Frank Maslen was that the boss had to “butt out” and only provide the team with general support and oversight. His instinct proved correct, and Malsen’s team was the first to find a solution. 

Results like these can happen when leaders understand that their presence can sometimes hinder progress. Often, it can be difficult for managers to back off, but sometimes setting ego aside can be the best thing for the team. 

6 characteristics of building a great work environment

The 6 most effective ways to integrate a healthy pecking order in your business.

Maximize Your Impact with Joseph Studios

Instead of relying on super chickens, which will ultimately stunt your growth, operating your business with social capital in mind can significantly boost your company’s productivity and employee morale.

 And if your company needs a digital marketing company to help bolster its efforts, look no further than Joseph Studios. At Joseph Studios, we pair our proprietary Deep Insight® methodology with expert market research, intelligence and analysis, customer profiling, writing, and design to create and implement a strategy to create and capitalize on the relationships your business needs to thrive.

Our team of experts comes from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds, collaborating to bring a unique set of benefits to your business. Want to learn more about how informed, multi-disciplinary organic marketing can transform your company? Schedule a free consultation call with our expert marketers today!


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