—Theodore Roosevelt

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

Developing a Culture of Helpfulness: Don’t Be a Superchicken


By Lorie Pope 

I recently ran across a presentation on Ted Talk by Margaret Heffernan* that absolutely fascinated me because it directly touched on values we are passionate about here at Nexus regarding a healthy culture. Of all crazy things, it used a study about chickens and egg production to illustrate the polarizing and destructive culture of Competitiveness, and the amazing results of social capital if a culture of Helpfulness is nurtured.

It was especially interesting to me because we align ourselves with the philosophy expressed in this quote “Culture Eats Strategy For Lunch” first attributed to Peter Drucker. Yes, a company must have great strategy. But that strategy is worthless if it cannot be carried by the foundation of a great culture. 

So here’s the story about “Superchickens” that Ms. Heffernan told:

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.

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.

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.

Ms. Heffernan goes on to make some great points, to which I’ll add what we’ve learned here at Nexus from our own experience…sometimes a painful yet also a very rewarding experience.

So what is the point here? Studies were done to try to pin down what made a highly productive team. MIT did an experiment with hundreds of volunteers. Results?

  • It wasn’t intellectual IQ.
  • It was the groups that had a high level of empathy for each other and were connected as a team.
  • Those groups also gave roughly equal time for each other to speak up – and it was expected to “speak up”…contribute.

Practically speaking from our experience in building a healthy culture from one that needed some changes, here are my observations together with other research. People/groups/teams need to have time for social interaction, communication, and experiences to build trust together.

Bottom line – it’s called a “Culture of Helpfulness.” That was - and is - central to success as a team. All are “for each other,” not “against.” We achieved this with the assistance of the book and training sessions from Five Dysfunctions Of A Team by Patrick Lencioni.

The research isn’t saying teams must be average, but simply make the shift to work together and build up social capital. What is the reason for that? Complex problems are solved much faster, profits go up and people are much happier and feel “safer” at work. From an environment of perfectionism that stifles, the shift is made to one of helpfulness where people can reach their potential, ideas are freely given and productivity increases because every person is valued…and doesn’t need to be a “superchicken.”

* Margaret Heffernan; Why It’s Time to Forget the Pecking Order at Work, June 2015 Ted Talk