Is Your Workplace a Super Chickens Experiment?

Is your workplace a Super Chickens Experiment?

A while back, I listened to 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. Like most workplaces, we had an annual review to give us feedback on how we performed. Based on the reviews, about 10% of the employees received raises and promotions. Another 10% got bad reviews and were put on the fast track for unemployment unless they can turn it around. The rest got a small cost of living adjustment or no raise at all. (Usually 2-3%, but it might be more depending on the year.) This super-chicken model is widely used and a lot of us have experienced it. It makes sense in a Darwinian way. The best workers should get raises and move up the ladder, right?

That’s not exactly true according to Dr. William Muir, a professor of genetics at Purdue University. Dr. Muir conducted an experiment to increase the egg-laying productivity of hens in the 90s and had an interesting 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 one coop. This all-star team full of individual super-chickens was akin to the best workers who got promoted. The cage contained 9 chickens and we’ll call it the super chicken group.

For the second group, they picked a set 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 group.

Super Chickens Fail

What do you think was the result of the super chicken experiment? If the corporate model is right, the cage of super chickens should have the highest productivity. However, the result was very surprising. The super chickens were hyper-aggressive and pecked each other to death! Only 3 ragged chickens were left in the super chicken group at the end of the experiment. The super chickens were the most productive hen in their respective coops because they suppressed the productivity of other hens. Once they’re put in a coop full of super chickens, they bullied each other to death. Not a pretty picture.

On the other hand, the friendly chicken group 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.

Corporate Environment

The result is very interesting because it shows that encouraging competition and ranking individual employees at work may not be the optimal way to increase productivity. The super chickens are talented, but they also get ahead at the expense of their coworkers. They are good at taking credit, suppressing their coworkers, and being more visible. 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 assertive and take on more responsibilities.

I guess the super chicken model is good enough for corporations 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 and engineers need to learn new tools and software very often. Young engineers can perform most tasks just as well as senior engineers (after a little training) 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 backup plan.

Successful Teams

Anyway, Margaret Heffernan went on to talk about the characteristics of 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 wake-up call and I made early retirement my goal. Fortunately, things worked out really well and I’ve been retired for over 10 years now. I make a lot less money than when I was an engineer, but life is so much better now. And I don’t have to worry about layoffs anymore! That’s fantastic.

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 about it. Lastly, good luck with your annual review…

*Passive income is the key to early retirement. These days, I’m investing in commercial properties with CrowdStreet. They have many projects across the United States. It’s been working so well that I’m planning to sell our rental condo so I can invest more. Go check them out!

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Joe started Retire by 40 in 2010 to figure out how to retire early. After 16 years of investing and saving, he achieved financial independence and retired at 38.

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76 thoughts on “Is Your Workplace a Super Chickens Experiment?”

  1. Like Elon F*** Musk is doing? Slavery 2.0. How come he does that and no agency can prevent this type of behavior!? In Europe he’d be in jail

  2. I usually do not comment on recycled posts I couldn’t help myself. My wife’s family were all in the chicken business in one way or another. One brother-in-law was one of the biggest executives in the history of the chicken business so I’ve heard a lot of inside chicken stories from him. The fact is that almost every chicken now being raised is a genetically bred super chicken, whether they be laying chickens, fryers, or whatever. That industry has perfected the genetics of chickens and the composition of the feed so that it is surprisingly close to a one pound of bird from one pound of feed. Of course it isn’t quite that high a ratio but I’d be disclosing protected business information if I told you. So virtually any chicken you can buy, except for some scrawny free range birds, is pure super chicken. But they were not bred for personality, just to optimize pounds of meat per pounds of feed.

  3. I don’t get why companies think aggressively churning their workers enhances productivity. Suppose a company cuts the “bottom” 10% each year. Along with typical attrition, could turn over half the workforce every four years. Curious that outfits like GE and Microsoft got rid of this after 10 or so years. Guess it took them that long to figure it out.

  4. I’m not sure I completely agree. First, we’re not chickens bred to lay eggs. We have free will. We can leave bad environments if we want. No matter how much the student debt, one can choose to leave working for Big Brother.

    Second, how else are corporations suppose to evaluate people? While it is possible to say all corporations choose this because they are sheeple, I think such a statement rings false. They use it because it works, as modified for each corp.

    Third, I am skeptical about the conclusions, and some of them are contradictory to the premise. The first conclusion is a successful team is socially sensitive to each other. If you put a bunch of type A people together in a room, they are extremely socially sensitive to each other. In fact, the “super chicken bin” all those chickens were super competitive and sought to kill each other; and in order to do so, they needed to be socially aware. The other example is Survivor – only one person could win, yet the whole show was about creating alliances. In otherwords, type A people are extremely socially aware. However, introverts tend not to be – because we prefer our own company, we see no need to be socially aware.
    The 2nd conclusion is that each member contributes equally. Yet, part of the whole discussion is each member is different, brings different things to the table. The determination of “contributes equally” does not mesh if each person contributes differently.
    The final conclusion is, most successful teams have women. My BS alarm goes off, and there may be some bias in the result. What I didn’t see was a definition of successful team. Look at sports, there are some teams that get along great but never win; there are some teams that hate each other and win championships. Which is the successful team? I find it ironic that the super chicken pen held only women (that last sentence was a joke).

    Further it is axiomatic that people work best when they work with whom they like. Super chickens tend to be at the top of the corporate ladder. I have a different observation – Super chickens do not see their jobs as laying eggs; their job is to destroy other chickens and hang out only with other super chickens. In the corp world, that means the job of management isn’t to be software engineers, it’s to be number 1. They like hanging around people who are like them, and they probably bring their teams up the chain with them. Sure, the VPs may hate each other’s guts and try to rip out each other’s throats. But each VP’s team may be hugely successful.

    Having said all that, I can’t wait to get out of the rat race. Hopefully Obamacare will end soon, and I can afford health insurance.

  5. Competition in the work place can be effective on making your employees work harder. However, competition can have a negative effect on your work environment if it gets out of control and too much. After all, we wouldn’t want to cross that fine line of competition and end up with our employees pecking each other to death!

  6. Oh, I know those super chickens very well; we have plenty of them. The “best” is when a super chicken is still kept in the privileged cage because once he might have laid huge eggs, but now doesn’t do anything just sh!ts in the cage and make its voice heard while the farmer is too blind to see that he’d better off selling it for KFC 🙂

  7. Good post Joe, and yes those Ted talks do spark creativity and a shift in mindset. I think most corporations work like this, and they really don’t know or too busy to do research otherwise. Maybe I will send the ted talk to my HR dept. Good luck, and I might get me some chickens when I move in FI. (Maybe not eggs are cheap already haha)

  8. It’s an interesting experiment, but that’s all it is. Life is never fair in the real world. Super chickens live with other type of chickens. All types of people work with each other at companies, outside of corporate life, and typically the less competent, those who continuously make dumb decisions, complacent people, lazy people, weak minded people, people who fail to build a network or support system will be pushed out of most companies and industries. Even companies who possess these qualities over time will get left behind. You can expand this logic to even countries. Stronger nations almost always impose their will on weaker countries and exploit it at times.

    Of course, it’s nice to strive to get along better, but in reality, even those in more collaborative environments when they feel they’ve been constantly shafted, even when it’s their entire fault and without any justification, will build resentment and lash out unfortunately. The extreme cases in society are the mass shooting at work or at school. Women in general are thought to be more collaborative gender, but they don’t get along with each other any better in work environment than men. I would argue sometimes, they’re more cunning and manipulative compared to men. When two men dislike each other many times, it’s obvious whereas in women, it’s harder to tell.

    • You’re right. Real life isn’t a controlled experiment. The world is big enough that the super chickens can avoid each other. Real life is a pain, isn’t it?

  9. So there’s some evidence to suggest that women are better investors than men. The study I read focused on three traits which led to this conclusion:

    1) Women are more likely to seek help from experts rather than try to do it all themselves.
    2) Women are more likely to stick with a plan/strategy once it’s been decided.
    3) Women are more likely to make deliberated decisions based on values and goals.

    You can sorta see how that would make an ideal team member in a corporate environment.

  10. I disagree with some of your analysis. In particular, you say:
    “The super chickens are talented, but they also get ahead at the expense of their coworkers”

    I think you jump to conclusions too fast here, or have some bias based on your experience. The only good conclusion is that super chickens don’t work well together, it does not mean they got to “super” level at the expense of others.

    As a kid, I was a “super chicken” in school, and as I progressed I got moved into a “super chicken” school. The result on many individuals (including me) is that you’re confronted with actual “competition” on the one thing you’re good at for the first time in your life, as a teenager. For some, it can be devastating to become “average” when they used to be in the top 10%, and that can quickly spiral down. I can see how the same would happen in a work environment.
    I think this is one of the many aspects that explains why just taking the “top 10%” on one set of metrics is not going to yield better results in the long term. But saying that this happens at the expense of others sounds like a stretch IMO.

    Other than that, totally agree with the other points.

    • That’s the speaker’s conclusion and I somewhat agree. The chicken coop experiment doesn’t correlate to the corporate experience exactly. The super corporate workers don’t have to all work in the same team. There are a lot more rooms for them.
      In school, I’m not sure. The top kids never worked with others well. They don’t share and they like to work by themselves. You’re right, it could be my own personal bias.

  11. Welcome to real life. It’s not just in large companies, but in politics, hollywood, dating, and in life general that the most aggressive and competitive people who are sometimes willing to destroy others get aheads. This will never change as people, companies, countries who are weak will almost always get taken advantage of by others with more power. Angels do not exist in a very competitive world.

    I think the earlier people accept this reality and adjusts their expectations of work and the reasons for it, the happier most will be.

    • I think you got the wrong message. The hyper competitive people will be more successful, but they won’t be happier. The super chickens pecked each other to death. They are stressed out and they’re never happy. I guess you can be super chickens in your 20s and 30s, but we should slow down a bit in our 40s and 50s to enjoy life. IMO.

      • Happiness and pursuit of happiness is something that an individual will have to determine. I believe it derives from having good relationships with close family and friends, but also in large part of being content with achieving the amount of success that he/she had in mind for themselves. This applies to careers and relationships. In your case, you seem to be content with your level of success, but many others won’t be. Some have outsized ambition and won’t ever be happy, but others will be content with much less than even what you’ve achieved.

        Happiness can change in an instant when a life event occurs which is completely out of one’s control. Therefore, it’s important to be content, but I don’t believe in this absolute pursuit of happiness as the ultimate goal in society. Ambitious people are good for society and propelled America and the Western World to win globally. They made not be happier than people in poorer parts of the world, but most people would still rather live in Western countries if given a chance.

          • The amazing thing about living in the West, thanks to our ancestors, is that we get to choose what games in Life we want to play.
            Also, with people like yourself Joe, you share new games to play, to find what suits you (as an individual) best.
            For the competitive, aggressive and mentally tenacious–please go ahead and win in corporate, politics and Hollywood, it benefits us all!
            For those who want a different pace or have different skill sets, there are so many options…with blogging being a wonderful one, you demonstrate.
            I salute those how were born with the mental and physical strength to win in competitive environments and everything they do to push humanity further.
            Work and success is entirely up to us to define, which is the angel I have found in this world. As soon as I let others define it for me, I end up unhappy.
            Perhaps we will all not change the world with our levels of ambition, but the happier, as individuals, we are able to become the happier everyone will be around us, for me that is success.

  12. This is exactly how the corporate system works. I have firsthand knowledge due to the fact that I worked in a Fortune 50 company as an HR Manager. In that company 75% of folks were in the middle and the rest at the extremes. What I observed was a lack of risk taking, underlying competitive behavior (never admitted to or acknowledged for what it was) and so much posing in meetings that I became bored to death of the excessive “horse and pony” show to warrant everyone’s respective existence in the top 80%.

    It does keep people on their A-game, not allowing for an “off year,” but what I found was that it stifled many from taking bigger risks and resulted in a lot of time spent “positively positioning” that could have been used more productively.

    That being said, people who enjoy a competitive environment and somewhat stable employment, really thrive in this environment. Also, the system does serve to compensate top performers very well, which is great if you can be a marathoner your whole life.

    For me, I left this environment after years of feeling ill suited for it. I wasn’t very competitive, I didn’t like “open offices” and honestly I didn’t thrive working 50+ work weeks non-stop. That is why sites like these saved me life….I truly love that we have an outlet to find another way.

  13. I do not care, I do not work for the money or the fame, work in and of itself is its own reward. I only work to keep myself occupied and fellow human peers to interact with. All the while stashing capital to ensure financial independence someday.

  14. Naturally friendly chicken here who has become a super chicken over time through competition in school and work. Sometimes I notice negative behaviors in myself (intolerance and impatience) that a very competitive work environment has nurtured over the years. I consciously try to be a more patient person at home with my family but it takes a conscious effort to shift out of work-mode and find my zen. We talk a lot about the workload, stress, politics, etc that we don’t like at work but what bothers me the most is how that environment influences my basic habits and behaviors in ways I don’t want.

  15. I have worked for 14 years in a large cap and almost 3 years in a small private company.

    Generally speaking, here is my experience – when a large cap is stagnant and not growing, the top 10% get only ~2-3% raise. I was a senior manager and fell in this bucket. Large corporations don’t promote talent beyond a certain level. It all comes down to the “good old country club” network. You need to be “connected” and you need to be “non-threatening” – aka dumber than the person above you to get promoted. If you exhibit skills that makes people above you insecure they make extra effort to chase you out.

    This is why majority of the CEOs are dumb and they find somebody dumber to replace them. Then an activist like Carl Icahn has to step in and help clean up the management.

    The past 3 years in a small private company has been a blessing. There are a lot of high productivity people. We are so busy with work and have no time for nonsense or politics. We are very cooperative and put the customer first. I have been happy and content.

  16. From my personal experience as a manager a good team includes members with different skill sets so that they don’t compete but compliment each other. However, if one member is not strong enough he could damage the team effort so it is the team that pushes to replace him.
    Yes, I’m aware that this kind of workplace is not too friendly in general, especially for people that can’t meet the required level.
    In my opinion every person should learn his capabilities and look for a job that fits him most. To work in a position that doesn’t fit you is not good for you and not good for the company too.

  17. My company follows the Super Chicken model. Some years ago I decided to call BS and that I would not write my ‘self evaluation’. I was happy to write up feedback for my peers and I asked my manager to pass on any peer feedback that he received for me. When he asked why I wouldn’t write it, I explained that I thought it was completely without use. Either they already knew I was doing a good job and would reward me. Or they would not. I didn’t at all believe that my 3 paragraphs made an iota of difference one way or the other, so I wasn’t going to waste my time on it. You know what? I was right. 5 years of blank self evaluations later I have had two ‘average’ ratings, 3 high ratings and 1 promotion. The outcomes are all predetermined by management and everything else is a charade to make you feel that you participated and had some say in determining the outcome.

    My husband’s company has a more interesting model. They have to nominate themselves for promotion when they think they are ready. They have to create a promo package with a description of their achievements and write-ups from their peers and managers. This is submitted to a committee that is composed of senior engineers and managers – but none from your immediate team.

    • Wow! That is a gutsy move. Awesome…
      Your husband’s company sounds like they have a good policy. That’s very unusual. Does it work well?

      • For the most part, yes it does. The engineers at his company certainly feel that their promotion process is fair. They do complain that going up for promotion is a _lot_ of work though. They spend close to a month getting their ‘promotion package’ ready.

  18. I hope I’m not a Super Chicken, but I have progressed well at the company I’ve been at for almost 20 years (hard to believe that much time has passed). Now I’m your typical mid-level manager who needs to do annual performance reviews for my team as well as provide input to other managers for their team members.

    We have a ranking system and expected normal distribution across all the engineers in the company. Even though we are all software engineers, not all software engineers are the same – we have different strengths, different skill sets, different roles. How can I fairly compare one person who deals with embedded systems vs. someone who deals with backoffice applications? It’s just not an apples to apples comparison.

    In regards to my own review, I’m more interested in what my team thinks of me rather than my manager’s opinion. Am I helping my team to be creative and innovate? Am I giving them challenging assignments that allow them to learn and grow? Am I preparing them to take over my job so that I can retire early? 🙂 I’m not sure how to get this feedback – I ask them but are they really being honest with me?

  19. I have found it is all about understanding what your manager, and their manager want. It is very much like understanding how your professor in College wants things done. What most people don’t understand is that making it pleasant for your manager to work with you is actually part of your job. So those who do that well and do their work end up getting good rankings. Those who are difficult and bull headed make it hard for the manager to get things done and are therefore rated lower. Most corporations actually value and promote multiple personality types. But yes the Type A’s do tend to be more frequent as you go up the scale.

  20. Late to the comments because I was doing someone’s annual review! (I don’t get a review because I am just a temporary employee right now – it’s awesome!) I was doing a teacher’s observation and review and there have been big changes in teacher’s reviews over the years. Some districts use “pay for performance” and that has many positives and even more negatives. They tie teacher performance in our state to student test scores now and they even wanted to post a teacher’s review score in the newspaper a few years back. I agree with your point on collaboration creating great teams. I work with some awesome educators who share and collaborate on everything they do – to help ALL kids. They use data to help track student progress and share lesson plans, activities and interventions to support kids at all different levels.

    • My interactions with our kid’s teachers so far has been really good. They are all hard working and understanding. I really admire them for the work they do. Thanks for educating our kids!

  21. I would say I was a hybrid between super chicken and the passive one. But still it wasn’t easy to survive. BTW, they got rid of BE rating two years ago, and now even Successful rated employees can be tagged as under performers and walked out. There is no job security in that industry what’s so ever.

        • Not surprised. Of the eight companies I worked for, Intel was one of the worst. After I got kicked out, heard thru grapevine my team had several voluntary departures, before the big 2016 layoff. The revised layoff criteria will eject a lot of good workers.

    • What Intel did for 2015 layoffs was very devious, not just because they tried to hide them. Got rid of BE, then retroactively applied new criteria so that one 2015 IR/SSL4-5, and one IR/BE/SSL4-5 any three prior years, laid off. Which means someone with satisfactory reviews but two SSL4-5 got canned. (IR=improvement required, BE=below expectations, SSL1=most stock, SSL5=least stock.) Unlikely coincidence older workers disproportionately hit. So even though 2015 layoff was rather small, generated enormous consternation. Those laid off can never be rehired. 2016 layoffs got similar treatment.

      My supervisor and his boss both surprised, had no input into selection. Our already understaffed team lost two members, including me. Other guy had 15 years. Final insult when CEO BK publicly slimed laid off as “repeat poor performers”, even though some due to project cancellations and site closures.

  22. I work in the public sector… and although we are supposed to get regular evaluations… I haven’t had one in almost 3 years! Nobody seems to care however… as everyone (good workers or bad workers) get the same raises no matter what their performance is like. I think our cost of living raise this year was 1%. It is very interesting to compare the differences between the private and public sectors. When I first began working in the public sector, I previously came from the private sector. I was absolutely amazed at the lack of efficiency, the amount of wasted money and resources and the total lack of motivation to be productive. It seems as almost nothing is based on performance. Very different world.

    • Wow, that’s a huge difference than the private sector. Although, a personal friend works for the federal government and she is doing pretty well. I think you’ll still do well if you’re self driven.

  23. This post resonates pretty well with me Joe, due to my working at companies that have employed this super chickens approach.

    Of course, the purpose of this exercise is to really intensify the rat race for those who have drunk the corporate cool-aid (which people like you and me, who are focusing on financial independence frown upon)

    When a company has to allocate a certain percentage of failing grades to employees, this decreases morale, reduces teamwork, and doesn’t really foster risk taking. It just fosters back stabbing, but not a lot of productivity.

    I am not a lawyer, but I would think that a workplace that has to allocate 10% poor ratings to employees, might open itself to a class action lawsuit.

    • Right, the quota system seems ripe for a law suit. Companies are doing whatever they want. Recently, my old company has been laying off a lot of the senior engineers. That seems like a class action lawsuit to me, but what do I know.

  24. Great insights Joe about work in America. In hindsight I found my best job, by far, was my 16 years of teaching in community college. Wonderful support staff, great colleagues, and I was in charge of the classroom. Most students were fun and hard working wanting to get ahead. The money really wasn’t all that bad when you take all of the benefits into consideration. And the retirement? One of the best.

    So, I often ask myself why I left in mid-career. It seemed to be greener on the other side and I started my own company. I never worked so hard for such a small return as founder, president and manager of eight full-timers and 25 contract employees. The 35-40 hour weeks turned into 60-80 hours in my small business and caring for the lives of my employees. And,
    I found that I hated management. I struggled for 20 years, sold the company and came out successful, but would have done much better if I stayed in my teaching position.

    Moral of story…think twice before leaving a decent job where you are well supported and paid. I agree with Ernie, it’s one thing to be your own boss without any staff, as compared to
    having a dozen or so people depending upon you for their income. Night and day difference.

    • My old boss is teaching community college now. Life is a lot less stressful than working in the Megacorp.
      I can imagine how hard it would be to run a company. People depends on you for their livelihood. That’s a lot of pressure.

  25. I previously worked in a modified Super Chicken type environment. Assuming there was $ for raises, and there were times when there wasn’t, everyone received a COL. Then there were basically 3 levels of achievement were you could earn an additional 3 to 7% depending on where you ranked. Levels II and III were finite. Only a few individuals could achieve a 3, more could receive a II, and more yet could achieve I. I did work hard all year and documented my achievements to justify why I should be a II or III. I did receive the L3 one year, received L2 most years, and 1-year “only” got L1. I moved up from Data Entry–>Team Lead–>Programmer.

    Now, I work at a small company doing mostly sales. The last number of years, our raise is our sales. You want to earn more, sell more.

    I’m only a fan of teams, if everyone on the team does their part. If you have people riding on others coattails, that is not a good situation.

  26. My company has never invoked the lowest percentiles group to be on the hook to shape up or get out. There seems to be a fair process that gives people a chance to get it back together. At least in the R&D division. Although I have heard horror stories from other divisions. So the chicken experiment may well be alive and well in my company on a division by division basis.

    Annual bonus is made up of corporate performance, division performance and personal performance. Corporate weighting is 20%. Division plus personal is 80%. For non exec level folks, that weighting seems fair.

  27. I’m pretty lucky I’ve never worked in a company with that type of system; however, the systems they did use weren’t great. Instead of actually rating performance, pretty much everyone gets an average rating along with an average raise. I don’t really mind that in a team environment, except we still go through the drawn out review process. It feels like a waste of time.

    When it comes to promotions, I’ve seen two systems. The first is a bit of a popularity contest, where how much “exposure” you’ve had to upper management is the biggest factor. The second is strictly time based–you must have 10 years of experience to be promoted, no matter how good you are. Both are pretty discouraging.

  28. No, not any more. My director once told me his favorite question to pose to job interview candidates for our group: “which would you rather win, a Heisman trophy or a Super Bowl ring?” The “correct” answer is the Heisman because this means you’ve become the best in the world at what you do. He doesn’t hire anyone who gives the “correct” answer.

    Our performance review is team-based, meaning our ratings are mostly done at the group level. Employees are free to move around, managers do not dictate who is on their teams, except for new hires. They’re like the head coach who comes in cold from the outside. So the teams largely self-organize based on skillset, reputation, and most of all, cohesion.

    What typically happens is the productive teams end up with a motley crew who at first glance don’t appear to have much in common. But their end product is amazing because managers are selected for their ability to extract high performance from their mishmash. The backstabbers, prima donnas, slackers, and whiners also congregate into their own teams and produce something very useful as well– namely the benefit of keeping these attitudes out of the way of the other teams.

    BTW the next phase of the experiment I’m not enamored with– this is where top management is attempting to disintermediate middle management by pushing the ground level employees onto our newly launched in-house social media platform. I do not believe the machine can coordinate all of our conflicting constraints and objectives (both program and personnel) as well as the people who know us. So I’m laying down on the tracks, zero postings for me (thanks to FIRE).

    • That’s very interesting. I’ve never heard of a team-based performance review. That’s sounds really good. If the team did well, then everyone on the team should be rewarded. Your workplace sounds pretty nice. I suspect the bad attitude teams aren’t very productive.
      The next phase sounds cutting edge… I wouldn’t want to deal with it, though. Good luck…

  29. Great article Joe. I’ve spent most of my working life in the banking industry and at the end i worked for two super chickens in a row. What a disaster and thankfully i was able to get out before I stroked out. I’m like you Joe, I’m not comfortable blowing my own horn but was able to win many of their sales competitions. But winning them made me feel like a trained seal at SeaWorld. One thing I learned was that the super chickens at the top did not work as hard as the chickens in the middle. Imagine that! The chickens in the middle the chickens that worked together and respected one another were the chickens who got things down.. Reading this article made me think of that mess at Wells Fargo and how when he got caught the super chicken blamed as usual the chickens at the bottom. So sad but at least that super chicken didn’t get away with it.

    • I was thinking for the Wells Fargo fiasco too. The CEO kept blaming the “bad apples”, but the bad policy created those bad apples. The managers pressure the young employees so much that they had to cheat to meet the quota. The super chickens should have faced more consequences, IMO.

  30. I never think that competition is a good thing in the workplace. I understand it in terms of getting job offers, but once you’re working on a team, it’s not wise to shove wedges in between members.

    Throw in a competitive environment with aggressive coworkers and passive management and you have a recipe for unhappy workers.

    I’ve never actually had an annual review, and I think I like it that way! Our client does have annual reviews and you can tell when they’re coming up because our partners all get very nervous–their bonuses depend on the reviews, so they feel under pressure and nervous. That means it’s harder to do my job. Ugh.

  31. What a great experiment to prove a universal truth. Part of what can help teams work better with women on them, is when the strengths that women bring are valued. Often women are allowed to play if they play like men. But in a team environment, the strengthen that come more naturally to women can strengthen the whole project. I was at a talk where a women who raises money for risky venture capitol companies shared. She talked about how she does take a lot of risks, but unlike the men in the group always has back up plans. Another male coworker described her this way. “All the men are ready to conquer the mountain, but she is the only one who has 3 back up plans so we all make it out alive. With out her this business might die in a blaze of glory. She is the one we need around when all the sh** hits the fan, because she is already prepared for that scenario.”

    In a tech company start up, creating back up plans might not get you promoted. But it sure is nice to have someone like that on the team to keep the company afloat.

    • I think you’re right. Women bring a lot of intangible qualities to the team. It’s not always about visibility and taking credit. I think women are probably better at doing things that help the whole team instead of just themselves. Good example. Thanks!

  32. Ah…jajajajaja…..the old gaussian distribution model…you forgot that the difference between raises in the middle and the top 10% was 1% to 2% more because they wanted to keep people in this middle band. Company created a tool to make this yearly distribution regardless of your review performance to reduce legal liability. So it does not matter if you had a breakthrough or meet requirements year, you fell into the % depending on years of experience and salary.

    Figured this one rather quickly and learned after a while not to volunteer and spenthe time at home. Changing jobs witHunt or out of the company was the only way to get promoted and a substantial raise and bigger office in mahogany road.

    If it was tough to get it, it was tougher to give it. Broke the rules so many times and always told people how wonderful their contributions were as engineers. My success in corporate was rooted by giving the credit to others and as a result they gave the credit to me.

    Although found a lot of selfishness and unrelanted greed but today my heart and mind are free for doing the right thing. Everyone is forgotten and replaced. It’s a job and the are only two things that happen. You get promoted or fired with time.

    Early enough FI have given me the power to walk away from the corporate environment and the ability to have the experiences a human being should. Paid the price and did the right thing.

    The road is paved with people who didn’t and then died at the job or just after they retired the conventional way.

    Jobs are not important. People are. Everyone contributes to the success of the team based on their ability, persOnalaska situation, and work environment they encountered. So we all are Super Chickens.

  33. Fascinating! You hit it right on the money in your Corporate Environment paragraph. Many high schools and colleges have this type of environment as well.
    Psychology Today magazine had a recent issue on Narcissists. It summed it up by stating that narcissists are attracted to competitive environments-makes sense! Many of them have gotten away w/bullying since childhood. For survival, it’s good to recognize these types.
    Thank God my accountant once told me, “You don’t have to work anymore”. I was so tired of being henpecked!
    If you think the Corporate culture really cares about you, you’re sadly mistaken.

    • Yes! The speaker mentioned the education system too. The super chickens are trained to dominate from their early years and they just keep doing what works. Unfortunately, their increased productivity usually come at the expense of other people.
      Right, the corporate is just a vehicle to enrich the executives first and share holders second. Workers are just cogs in the wheel.

  34. We have a yearly review, everyone gets a modest raise at least – the rest is based on performance and a 9 block assessment (which forces managers to rank employees against each other)

    So yea – some variation of the Super Chicken thinking

  35. This is really interesting. The idea that the best individual performers do not necessarily make the best team makes a lot of sense if you stop and think about it. I suppose the problem is most people don’t stop and think about it.

    My workplace is not like this at all, which has its pros and cons. We’re in a system where you automatically get a cost of living increase and almost automatically get a small raise on top of that each year. This makes it easy to continue moving up in salary. The corollary to this is that it is much more difficult to make a big jump up in pay in any given year.

  36. Like many of the others above, I too hadn’t heard of this experiment before but I can see the correlation to my work environment.

    But in my group there are quantitative ways to assess performance as well as a few other factors that are easily known to judge performance. So it isn’t a huge factor of one person getting ahead on the backs of others, although I have seen it before.

    Either way, early retirement is my focus because I still have better things I can do with my time!

  37. Wow, I had never heard of this experiment before. But the parallels with the corporate world certainly are scary (especially with performance reviews around the corner)!

    I think I’m lucky enough work at a company focused on healthy teams. Nice colleagues and a supporting boss go a very long way. But I still get worried every now and then about getting pecked to death!

    • Good luck with your annual review. It’s a stressful period for everyone and it just drags on forever. It’s great that you have nice colleagues and a supporting boss. That make work much more tolerable.

  38. I had never heard of this super chickens experiment before, but it is the model I have been living for years, and I have the scars to prove it! Unfortunately, as knowledge workers, I think it’s difficult to assess performance quantitatively, so managers and decision makers have to rely on more subjective measures. That’s when the super-chicken behaviors start to rise.

    It’s unpleasant, but I’m not sure if I know a better way. Hopefully I will be out soon!

  39. You ask, “Is your workplace a super chickens experiment?”

    Not at all. But then again, I work for myself. Being a “digital nomad”, my workplace is any coffee bar where my laptop and I happen to be. Having said that, there is a reason that I work for myself. In fact, I don’t like the word “teamwork” nor do I like the two words that the word is made of. People can rant and rave all they want about the benefits of teamwork. I want no part of it. I have seen too many cases of people who make the biggest
    contributions being ignored and the people who make the smallest contributions being rewarded.

    Here are some words of wisdom that I find a lot more empowering than what anyone has ever said about teamwork:

    “The good ideas are all hammered out in agony by individuals, not spewed out by groups.”
    — Charles Bower

    “The thing is, you see, that the strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone.”
    — Henrik Ibsen

    “It is cruel to discover one’s mediocrity only when it is too late.”
    — W. Somerset Maugham

    “When you do work that matters, the crowd will call you a fool. If you do something remarkable, something new and something important, not everyone will understand it (at first). Your work is for someone, not everyone. Unless you’re surrounded only by someones, you will almost certainly encounter everyone. And when you do, they will jeer. That’s how you’ll know you might be onto something.”
    — Seth Godin

    “Many people, especially ignorant people, want to punish you for speaking the truth,
    for being correct, for being you. Never apologize for being correct, or for being
    years ahead of your time. If you’re right and you know it, speak your mind. Speak
    your mind even if you are a minority of one. The truth is still the truth.”
    — Mohandas Gandhi

    “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.”
    — Albert Einstein

    “The world in general doesn’t know what to make of originality; it is startled out of its comfortable habits of thought, and its first reaction is one of anger.”
    — W. Somerset Maugham

    “Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.”
    — Robertson Davies

    “Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.”
    — Dale Carnegie

    “The creative individual has the capacity to free himself from the web of social pressures in which the rest of us are caught. He is capable of questioning the assumptions that the rest of us accept.”
    — John Gardner

    “The great creative individual . . . is capable of more wisdom and virtue than collective man ever can be.”
    — John Stuart Mill

    “The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”
    — Fred Wilson

    “If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel
    good in your heart, it is not success at all.”
    — Anna Quindlan

    In short, I have to agree with Peter Mayle who declared, “I’d rather live precariously in my own office than comfortably in somebody else’s.”

    • I love being self employed as well. I thought I was a good team player, but that was wrong. I’m a much better solo worker. There are too much overhead when working in a team environment. I doubt I can go back to the “teamwork” environment. It’s just so much easier and efficient to work by myself.

  40. :::waving hands frantically::: Super chicken over here! Or at least a chicken in a super chicken experiment. I think the era of publicly traded megacorps forces so many more of us to work this way, with ever-increasing pressure on all of our numbers — our productivity, our profitability, you name it. It’s not healthy, and it’s the number one reason I’m eager to make the leap to early retirement.

    • It’s unfortunate that corporations are treating all of us as a widget in the machine. I think we could contribute much more if we were treated better. The executives focus on the bottom line so they would look good and get good bonuses. That short term mentality comes at the expense of the workers.

  41. Nearly every company I worked for used this exact model Joe.

    Getting promoted had *very little* to do with actual work performance or intelligence. It was just a big popularity contest…not that different than high-school.

    The people in charge of promoting (or firing) had very little knowledge of every individual’s work. Instead what they focused on were things you mentioned….visibility and influence. The promoted employees were always the social “big talkers” who took on flashy projects.

    It was a very negative environment, and I’m glad I got out.

    • Yeah I echo those remarks. I remember being told you need to increase your “followability”. Here’s a funny story for you on how managers achieved this. I can remember meeting with a manager who had submitted his department’s business plan to our department a month before his own department had a retreat to develop it. I was invited to the retreat and remarked how the whole weekend was spent with his employees coming up with business planning ideas and how the manager would steer them towards his already predefined plan. He had a whiteboard and would only write down the suggestions that matched his already submitted plan. The plan had been determined before the retreat and the only reason for the retreat was to make the employees believe the manager was listening to them and that they were part of the planning process. Eventually the puppet master got his puppets to come up with an exact replica of the plan he had given me a few weeks earlier. I also remarked that those that offered the most resistance would usually be the ones who got layed off in the next round of layoffs (through a extremely difficult, fair and unbiased process). Pretty good plan for increasing followability!

    • Exactly! It was easy to get raises and promotions when I got along well with my manager. When I didn’t, my reviews reflected that. I was going to mention this, but I couldn’t fit it in the right place. I’m glad I got out too.


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