Opinion

Margaret Heffernan suggests firms stop using super-chicken model and value all staff equally

5 min read

24 August 2015

Businesses have long believed in supporting its “superstars” in order to best benefit the company. However, research shows that teamwork is more valuable – and that it benefits the company in the long run.

Companies are often run according to the “super-chicken” model, whereby the value is placed on star employees who outperform others. However, business leader Margaret Heffernan has recently suggested that it is social cohesion – built during every coffee break, and when one team member asks another for help – that leads over time to great results.

During a May 2015 speech she used chickens to help put her point across. She said: “William Muir, an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University, studied chickens. He was interested in finding out what could make his chickens more productive – so he devised a beautiful experiment.”

Muir selected an average flock and left it alone for six generations. At the same time, he created a second group consisting of the most productive chickens. Each generation, he would only select the most productive for breeding.

After six generations had passed, what did he find? According to Heffernan, the first group were all “plump, fully feathered and egg production had increased dramatically.” Quite morbidly, she explained that all but three were dead in the second group as they’d pecked the rest to death. She said: “The individually productive chickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest.”

The result of businesses similarly picking superstars and giving them all the resources and power, would end the same way Muir’s experiment did, Heffernan said. She further added that if the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly needed to find a better way to work.

But what is it that makes some groups more successful than others? Heffernan explained that it was a question a team at MIT tried to answer. They brought in hundreds of volunteers, put them into groups and gave them hard problems to solve. 

“And what happened was exactly what you’d expect,” she said. “Some groups were more successful than others. What was really interesting was that the high-achieving groups were not those where they had one or two people with spectacularly high IQ. Instead, they had three characteristics.”

Read more on improving the workplace:

First of all, they showed high degrees of social sensitivity to each other. The successful groups gave roughly an equal amount of time to each other, so that no one voice dominated. And thirdly, they had more women in them.

The team wasn’t sure whether women doubled the empathy quotient or simply brought a more diverse perspective. What they realised, however, was that social connectedness was the ultimate key to a group’s success.

In the end, what motivates people are the bonds and loyalty they develop between each other. Heffernan claimed that teams that work together longer get better, because it takes time to develop the trust you need for real candour and openness. And time is what builds value.

“We’re used to talking about stars,” she said. “So I wondered whether there would be no more stars if we chose to work in a more intrinsic way. I went and sat in on the auditions at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and what I saw there really surprised me. The teachers weren’t looking for individual pyrotechnics. They were looking for what happened between the students as ‘that is where the drama is’. And when I talked to producers of hit albums, they said, ‘Oh sure, we have lots of superstars in music. It’s just that they don’t last very long’.”

Management by talent contest has routinely pitted employees against each other, she explained. Now, rivalry has to be replaced by social capital. According to Heffernan, we’ve been trying to motivate people with money for decades, even though we’ve got a vast amount of research that shows that money erodes social connectedness. She concluded that it was time to redefine leadership as an activity in whereby everyone could do their “most courageous” thinking together.