Last week, I heard a fascinating TED talk by Margaret Heffernan: Forget the pecking order at work. The talk was chilling because it reminded me of my old workplace. Every year, like most workplaces, we had an annual review to give us feedback on how we’re doing. Based on the reviews, about 10% of the employees received raises and promotions. Another 10% who were given bad reviews went on the fast track to unemployment unless they could turn it around quickly. The rest got a small cost of living adjustment or no raise at all. (I’m not sure about the exact percentage, but you get the idea.) This super-chicken model is widely used and a lot of us have personal experience with it. It makes sense in a Darwinian way. The best workers should get raises and move up in the company, right?
That’s not exactly true according to Dr. William Muir, a professor of genetic at Purdue University. Dr. Muir conducted an experiment to increase the egg laying productivity of hens in the 90s and had an interest result.
The Super Chickens Experiment
For the first group, they selectively bred the most productive hens of the flock for six generations. This produced the best individual chickens and those hens were put in a cage. This all-star team full of individual super-chickens was akin to the best workers who got promoted to management. The cage contained 9 chickens and we’ll call it the super chicken cage.
For the second group, they picked a cage of average chickens with good egg production that got along well together. These hens were also bred for six generations. This would be akin to promoting a productive team of workers without ranking each person individually. This cage also contained 9 chickens and we’ll call it the friendly chicken cage.
Super Chickens Fail
What do you think was the result of the experiment? If the corporate model is right, the cage of super chickens should have the highest productivity. However, the result wasn’t what I expected at all. The individual super chickens were hyper aggressive and pecked each other to death! Only 3 ragged chickens were left in the super chicken cage at the end of the experiment. The super chickens were the most productive hen in their respective cages because they suppressed the productivity of other hens. Once they’re put in a cage full of super chickens, they bullied each other to death.
On the other hand, the friendly chicken cage did very well and increased their egg production by 160% after six generations. This group of chickens was more passive and they worked well together.
The result is very interesting because it shows that promoting competition or ranking individual employees at work may not be the optimal way to increase work production. The super chickens are talented, but they also get ahead at the expense of their coworkers. They are good taking credit, suppressing others, and being more visible than other people. That’s why the type A personality is better in the corporate environment. I was generally passive at work and my managers often told me I had to be more visible and take on more responsibilities.
I guess the super chicken model still works well for the corporation because they can get rid of burned out chickens every year. There are always younger, smarter, and better looking chickens to take your place. If you can’t perform at a high level, then they’ll just hire a super chicken fresh out of college. This is particularly true in the technology sector. Technology changes so quickly now and engineers need to learn new tools and software very often. Young engineers can do many jobs just as well as senior engineers and they are cheaper! That’s why I think engineers should plan for early retirement. If things work out, you won’t need it, but it’s good to have a plan in place.
Anyway, Margaret Heffernan went on to talk about the characteristics of really successful teams.
- They showed high degrees of social sensitivity to each other.
- Each individual contributes to the team equally. No one dominates or is given more attention than another team member.
- The successful groups have more women. Why? We don’t know…
The key is to work with each other and become friends. People collaborate much better with someone they like and the team is elevated. Companies need to get rid of the old super chicken model and promote collaboration. They need to allow people the time to get to know each other. The team dynamic is poisoned when an employee is promoted and another is fired every year. I completely lost my motivation when my boss was fired a few days before Christmas in 2009. It felt like the company was being vindictive and booted him before the end of the year so he wouldn’t get his annual bonus. It gave me a wakeup call and I made early retirement my goal soon after.
Is your workplace a super chickens experiment? What is the annual review process like? If there is a better way to review and reward employees, I’d love to hear more about it. Lastly, good luck with your annual review…