To Maximize Production, Managers Should Avoid Superchickens

In her recent TED Talk, Margaret Heffernan, a serial entrepreneur, encouraged managers to break down the barriers of the pecking order to facilitate teamwork and significantly increase efficiencies and productivity. Using the results from a study of chickens that illustrated a team of super egg-producing birds actually had disastrous results of death and destruction while an average flock moved along just fine as a cohort, Heffernan made the case for constructing teams at work that encourage group efforts that play to each member’s strengths and provides equal participation.

“For the past 50 years, we’ve run most organizations and some societies along the superchicken model. We’ve thought that success is achieved by picking the superstars, the brightest men, or occasionally women, in the room, and giving them all the resources and all the power. And the result has been the same as in [the] experiment: aggression, dysfunction and waste.”

Successful teams typically exhibit three characteristics, according to Heffernan. There is a high degree of social sensitivity amongst teammates. That means members show each other a great amount of empathy. High-achieving groups also tend to give each member equal time to express ideas so no one voice dominates the discussion. Finally, more women are members of the team. “Some groups do better than others, but what’s key to that is their social connectedness to each other.”

None of this is to say that teams should not have leaders. After all, someone needs to keep the ship sailing in the right direction because the reality is that work can get tough. When teams exhibit less appreciation and empathy for each other’s workloads group members typically go into silos where they focus more on individual work and less on the larger group goal. As a result, each teammate will become unglued and complete his and her own tasks at all costs no matter the consequences for others in the group. It is the leader’s responsibility to help prevent these kinds of problems from metastasizing into team-killing environments. Poynter notes that organizational cultures “produce official and unofficial caste systems among the rank and file. It’s up to bosses to fine tune the picture.”

To be sure, many people still want to be the alpha of the flock. In fact, 40 percent of Americans who are not yet retired say they want to be the boss or at least a top manager, according to Pew Research. This is particularly true for Millennials. As the newest entrants into the workforce, this constituency is the most ambitious. The implication is that as they gain more experience they will come to realize teamwork will produce the best results.

It is not that groups should not have bosses; rather bosses who emphasize high degrees of communication, cooperation and empathy.

“We need everybody because it is only when we accept that everybody has value that we will liberate the energy and imagination and momentum we need to create the best beyond measure. What matters is the mortar; not just the bricks.”