Look What Happened to the Super Chickens

This series profiles people whose ideas have the power to transform the workplace. Several are company leaders who have put their ideas into practice. Others are thought leaders influencing the way we work. Each new part will post on Tuesdays. Links to prior articles are at the end of this post. This series originally appeared on the OpenWork blog.

Margaret Heffernan likes to tell a story about chickens. In a 2015 TED talk, she spoke about a Purdue University researcher who separated a flock of chickens into two groups; one of average birds and the other composed only of the most competitive, intelligent and productive chickens. After six generations, the average chickens were healthy, plump and producing plenty of eggs, while the flock of super chickens had dwindled to just three birds. They had literally pecked themselves to death.

Heffernan uses this example to illustrate a crucial point: Cooperation and competition do not go hand-in-hand. She advocates an end to the traditional corporate hierarchy, or pecking order, starting with the elimination of job titles and ranks.

“You take away the status symbols over which people are inclined to compete,” she says. “You motivate people by talking about what they can achieve together.”

Heffernan, who lectures at the University of Bath, says companies that have already followed this example, such as the IT consulting firm Avanade, “are wiser and braver” for doing so.

“They recognize that our biggest challenge isn’t under-performance, which is probably a 5 percent problem, but giving people the safety, freedom and trust they need to grow and develop — which is the 95 percent problem. We continue to prioritize obedience over imagination.”

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Find the previous articles in this series here:

  1. The CEO Who Pays His Employees To Vacation