Is The Professional Pecking Order Doing More Harm Than Good?

Oct 2, 2015
Originally published on April 20, 2018 9:54 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Meaning Of Work.

About Margaret Heffernan's TED Talk

Drawing from an experiment with chickens, entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan explains how our cultural obsession with individual success is threatening our potential for collaboration and productivity.

About Margaret Heffernan

Margaret Heffernan began her career in radio and television production. She built a strong track record as a producer at the BBC before going on to run the film and television producer trade association IPPA. In the U.S., she became a serial entrepreneur and CEO in the wild early days of web business.

Heffernan now helps other companies make work more meaningful and fun. She also blogs for The Huffington Post and Inc.com. Her latest book, Beyond Measure: The Big Impact Of Small Changes, a TED Books original, explores the small steps companies can make that lead to big changes in their culture.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, some of us hate it, some of us love it, but most of us have no choice. We have to work. And you know who else does?

MARGARET HEFFERNAN: Chickens.

RAZ: This is Margaret Heffernan. She writes about work.

HEFFERNAN: So this is a really interesting story that I came across in a...

RAZ: This is a story Margaret often tells the CEOs that she coaches.

HEFFERNAN: And it's about an experiment which William Muir did. He works at Purdue University. And he was really interested in what could make groups more productive.

RAZ: So Muir decided to experiment with chickens.

HEFFERNAN: He found one flock that was generally pretty productive. And he put it to one side, and he just left it alone for six generations, letting chickens do what chickens do. And then he created another flock, which was constructed of the individually most productive chickens that he could find.

RAZ: And how did he, like, figure that out?

HEFFERNAN: Well, it's really great working with chickens 'cause measuring productivity is terribly simple. You just count eggs, right? And every generation, he would select the most productive to keep the flock going.

RAZ: Yeah.

HEFFERNAN: And at the end of six generations, he compared the two flocks. So he had - if you - like a superflock of super chickens that had been specially chosen.

RAZ: Yeah, these are, like, the Steve - this is like a team of, like, Steve Jobs and Jack Welch and...

HEFFERNAN: That's right, exactly.

RAZ: Yeah, right.

HEFFERNAN: Exactly.

RAZ: OK, yes, right.

HEFFERNAN: Versus, you know, the good old worker chickens, as it were.

RAZ: OK, so after six generations of chickens, Muir took his first flock of average, good old worker chickens and then he looked at the second flock of chickens - the super chickens flock. And he compared how many eggs each flock had laid.

HEFFERNAN: And what he found at the end of the experiment pretty much amazed him and I think amazes most people who hear the story, which is the average flock was doing very well. They were all really plump, fully feathered, very healthy and, importantly, they were more productive than ever. And the other flock - the superflock - all but three were dead.

RAZ: Wow.

HEFFERNAN: The rest had pecked each other to death.

RAZ: Bill Muir's chicken experiment has become legendary among social scientists because it's a kind of a parable. It's a window into human behavior and the way we work and maybe also a lesson on how we could do it better, how we could rethink the pecking order. Margaret Heffernan told this story on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HEFFERNAN: Now, as I've gone around the world talking about this and telling this story in all sorts of organizations and companies, people have seen the relevance almost instantly. And they come up, and they say things to me like, that superflock, that's my company...

(LAUGHTER)

HEFFERNAN: ...Or that's my country or that's my life. All my life, I've been told that the way we have to get ahead is to compete - get into the right school, get into the right job, get to the top. And I've really never found it very inspiring. I've started and run businesses because invention is a joy and because working alongside brilliant, creative people is its own reward. And I've never really felt very motivated by pecking orders or by super chickens or by superstars. But for the past 50 years, we've run most organizations, and some societies, along the super chicken 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 just the same as in William Muir's experiment - aggression, dysfunction and waste. If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live.

RAZ: How did we get to this place where, you know, that super chicken model came to dominate?

HEFFERNAN: Well, it starts really early, right? Say you have super chicken parents who want to get you into the super chicken gifted and talented group, right?

RAZ: (Laughter).

HEFFERNAN: And then the super chickens all kill each other to get into Harvard or Yale, right? And then they kill each other to get into Harvard Law or Harvard Business, blah, blah, blah. And by the time they get into work, they have been taught that their success must depend on the failure of others. And so you have, then, performance management systems, which are about identifying the high potentials, right, which is management speak now for gifted and talented. You have evaluation systems, like forced ranking, which say, well, we're really going to promote the top 10 percent. And so, again, they're still in the system that's familiar to them, which is your success is contingent upon making the people around you less successful than you are.

RAZ: I mean, the irony is that this kind of system that is sort of the model, it does not lead to more productivity.

HEFFERNAN: No, it doesn't lead to more productivity. In fact, it leads to, I think, a catastrophic loss of productivity and creativity. But there's this belief that the only way you can make people successful is to make work a fight to the death. And then they scratch their heads thinking, well, we've done that and it doesn't work. Let's make the stakes higher. Let's introduce some money into this game. And, of course, it gets more vicious, still.

RAZ: Money might make you work harder, but it might not make you work better with other people because to do that, Margaret says, you have to build something called social capital. You can think of it as trust.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HEFFERNAN: Social capital is what gives companies momentum. And social capital is what makes companies robust. What does this mean in practical terms? It means that time is everything because social capital compounds with time. So teams that work together longer get better because it takes time to develop the trust you need for real candor and openness. And time is what builds value.

When Alex Pentland suggested to one company that they synchronize coffee breaks so that people would have time to talk to each other, profits went up $15 million and employee satisfaction went up 10 percent. Not a bad return on social capital, which compounds even as you spend it. Now, this isn't about chumminess and it's no charter for slackers because people who work this way tend to be kind of scratchy, impatient, absolutely determined to think for themselves because that's what their contribution is. Conflict is frequent because candor is safe. And that's how good ideas turn into great ideas because no idea is born fully formed. It emerges a little bit as a child is born, kind of messy and confused, but full of possibilities. And it's only through the generous contribution, faith and challenge that they achieve their potential. And that's what social capital supports.

RAZ: It is hard for people, right...

HEFFERNAN: Yeah.

RAZ: ...To think of work as a social space. And you talk about this in your talk. You know, you - I mean, you're asked your whole life, right, like, what do you want to be when you grow up?

HEFFERNAN: (Laughter).

RAZ: And work is treated as this individual pursuit. I mean, no - there's no little kid who's like, I want to work in a really functional team with a lot of social capital.

HEFFERNAN: (Laughter) That's right. That's right. And, you know, and we're not graded for it and we don't get prizes for it. And yet and yet and yet, anytime you see a huge business success, even, dare I say it, a huge political success, you see that at the heart of it is a whole bunch of people who are prepared to support each other, challenge each other, argue with each other, make trade-offs for each other. And one of the things, you know, that I found when I looked in other walks of life - you know, going to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which is, you know, a drama school here in the U.K. from which, you know, people like Alan Rickman and Fiona Shaw and all sorts of amazing stars graduated.

RAZ: You just went there to go hang out?

HEFFERNAN: I went - well, I went there to watch their auditions 'cause I thought, well, if stars matter anywhere, surely it's got to be in show biz. And I was just amazed because, actually, what all the teachers there were looking for were not these spectacular fireworks of individuals. They were looking for actors who had something to give each other because, of course, in drama, it's what happens between people that's really exciting.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HEFFERNAN: And when I talked to producers of hit albums, they said, oh, sure, we have lots of superstars in music. It's just they don't last very long. It's the outstanding collaborators who enjoy the long careers because bringing out the best in others is how they found the best in themselves. And when I went to visit companies that are renowned for their ingenuity and creativity, I couldn't even see any superstars because everybody there really mattered. And when I reflected on my own career and the extraordinary people I've had the privilege to work with, I realized how much more we could give each other if we just stopped trying to be super chickens.

RAZ: I mean, do you think about, like, something so simple, which is employees who love to show up to work will just work better, right? But, really, that's rare. It's rare when people love going to work and love working with the people they work around. But it's such a simple solution to making a company more productive and better.

HEFFERNAN: Well, I think that's true. I think, you know, you need that great connectedness between people. But I'm also really struck again, you know, that a large number of companies I work with - and I'll say, you know, what's the driving goal, here? And they'll say $60 billion revenue next year. And I'd look at them and I'd say, you have got to be joking. What on earth makes you think that everybody is really going to give it their all to hit a revenue target? You know, you have to talk to something much deeper inside people than that. You have to talk to people about something that makes a difference to them every day if you want them to bring their best and do their best and feel that you've given them the opportunity to do the best work they've ever done.

RAZ: Margaret Heffernan - she now mainly helps companies make work more meaningful and fun. Her TED book is called "Beyond Measure: The Big Impact Of Small Changes." You can see all of her talks at TED.com. More ideas about work in a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.