Which Came First, the Chicken or the Team?

SkyeTeam Leadership Development

That is the question posed (sort of) by Margaret Heffernan in her May 2015 TED Talk, “Why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work.” Heffernan discusses a study conducted by William Muir, an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University. Muir was interested in productivity in chickens – how many eggs they laid. He reasoned that if he put the best egg layers – the high performers – together, he could create a community of high performers. The best of the best. The cream of the crop.

But no. As it turns out, this group of super-chickens did not come together as a top-performing team. Instead, by the end of the experiment, only three survived. The rest had been pecked to death by their super-chicken peers. The super-chickens, the individual performers, were only successful at the expense of their peers.

So what do we learn from this? According to Hefferman, our increasing focus on identifying high performers in the workplace could lead to the same outcome: less than stellar performance, and probably some dysfunction within the group.

Doubtful they would peck each other to death, but the individuals would likely focus on themselves and not on the team. Why did the average egg-layers outperform the super-chickens? Why were they the better team? Not because of high individual IQ, or high group IQ. The successful groups had a high level of social connectedness. That’s it.

Subsequent studies have identified three factors that enable teams to achieve high levels of team performance:

  1. The really successful teams have a high degree of social sensitivity to each other – they have empathy for each other.
  2. They give roughly equal time to each other, that is no one dominates, and no one is just a “passenger.”
  3. There are more women in the group.

At SkyeTeam, we work with groups all the time and we see this play out over and over. Organizations are lulled into cultivating the high performers, but they may be doing them a disservice if they don’t give them the relational tools to be successful. People need to connect. High-performing people need to connect to continue to perform.

Hefferman goes on to cite example after example of how companies who create the environment where social capital – social connectedness – is valued, are successful for the long haul. As she so eloquently, and rightly, put it, “what matters is the mortar, not just the bricks.” Amen, sister. We need to know each other as people, in order to build solid relationships with each other, in order to deliver high performance in the organization.

How do you bring this home to your own organization, department, and team? Focus not on the individual super chickens, but on cultivating relationships between all chickens. We happen to have a great resource for this. It’s called Cultivate – the Power of Winning Relationships. It’s a roadmap for understanding, assessing and building the kind of relationships we all want and need at work. No pecking allowed.