Career Talk, Money Talks, Motivation, The Tentmakers


Margaret Heffernan

An evolutionary biologist at Purdue University named William Muir studied chickens. He was interested in productivity — I think it’s something that concerns all of us — but it’s easy to measure in chickens because you just count the eggs. (Laughter) He wanted to know what could make his chickens more productive, so he devised a beautiful experiment. Chickens live in groups, so first of all, he selected just an average flock, and he let it alone for six generations. But then he created a second group of the individually most productive chickens — you could call them superchickens — and he put them together in a superflock, and each generation, he selected only the most productive for breeding.

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After six generations had passed, what did he find? Well, the first group, the average group, was doing just fine. They were all plump and fully feathered and egg production had increased dramatically. What about the second group? Well, all but three were dead. They’d pecked the rest to death. (Laughter) The individually productive chickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest.

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) 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 superchickens or by superstars. But for the past 50 years, we’ve run most organizations and some societies along the superchicken 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.

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So what is it that makes some groups obviously more successful and more productive than others? Well, that’s the question a team at MIT took to research. They brought in hundreds of volunteers, they put them into groups, and they gave them very hard problems to solve. And what happened was exactly what you’d expect, that some groups were very much more successful than others, but what was really interesting was that the high-achieving groups were not those where they had one or two people with spectacularly high I.Q. Nor were the most successful groups the ones that had the highest aggregate I.Q. Instead, they had three characteristics, the really successful teams. First of all, they showed high degrees of social sensitivity to each other. This is measured by something called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. It’s broadly considered a test for empathy, and the groups that scored highly on this did better. Secondly, the successful groups gave roughly equal time to each other, so that no one voice dominated, but neither were there any passengers. And thirdly, the more successful groups had more women in them. 

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Now, was this because women typically score more highly on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, so you’re getting a doubling down on the empathy quotient? Or was it because they brought a more diverse perspective? We don’t really know, but the striking thing about this experiment is that it showed what we know, which is some groups do better than others, but what’s key to that is their social connectedness to each other.

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