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Super Chickens or Super Collaborators. Which way is your company heading?

An opinion piece by Martin Kahn, Associate Director Oakwood International

By Martin Kahn

Martin is Oakwood's Associate Learning Consultant and works in our Associate Team
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The Super Chicken Syndrome

In a recent issue of People Management Magazine, I was reading an article by Margaret Heffernan, a self-styled entrepreneur and successful CEO. I started doing some research on her and have very quickly become a fan and devotee of her world view. Partly because I genuinely believe in her People First philosophy, and partly because growing up in a money obsessed 80’s sales operation where you really were only as good as your last deal, I had lived and experienced many of the situations she talks about. Most powerful for me was her TED Talk called “Forget the Pecking Order at Work”. If you have not seen this and you work in a large traditional hierarchical organisation, you should do so immediately if not sooner.

She starts by describing an experiment conducted by evolutionary biologist William Muir who wanted to study productivity. Obviously in chickens it’s easy as all you need to do is count the eggs. He created two flocks, an ordinary, average one and a second one consisting of highly individually productive chickens, Heffernan calls them “Super Chickens.” After six generations he compared the results and found that the average flock’s egg production had increased and the birds themselves were happy and productive. When he looked at the Super Chicken flock, all except three were dead. They had pecked the rest to death. The individually productive birds were only able to achieve success by suppressing the productivity of the rest. The intent of the story is to highlight the danger of creating organisations along the Super Chicken model. In so many aspects of daily life we see where this model does not work. I’m sure that any football fan can tell you what will happen if there are too many super stars in one team all going for individual glory rather than collaborating for success.

And yet despite all evidence, many traditional hierarchical organisations still insist on conforming to this notion that the more superstars they have, the more productive and better they will be. The vocabulary and terminology may have changed; in the past they were known as Super Stars, today we refer to them as Talent and many organisations invest heavily in the acquisition, development and fast tracking of these special people to fulfill tomorrow’s organizational strategy while up to 80% of the other lesser mortal employees (the plodders) are supposed to watch and admire and in many cases aspire to be more like their Super Chicken colleagues.

I have to smile inwardly when I look back at the early days of my own career in sales, before moving into HR and L&D, because I was a Super Chicken. I was a bright young thing fresh from university full of bravado and false confidence and highly competitive, in other words – the perfect 80's sales person. I achieved early success and was twice promoted beyond my capabilities. Whilst I still achieved my individual targets and won many awards, the rest of my team suffered because as we know with Super Chickens, come Super Egos. I cringe when I think back of the damage I caused early on due to my own lack of consideration and collaboration with my team. Despite this I was still able to win awards and accolades due to the organisation’s continued fixation on individual achievements and success.

What pleased me a great deal was HR Magazine’s Katie Jacobs’ article on New Model Leaders: How leadership is changing (September 2014) where Professor Cliff Oswick of Cass Business school states: “the days of the ‘rock star’ CEO are behind us. We don't need leaders who demonstrate ‘strong leadership’. We need people who are inclusive, reflective and facilitate the ideas of others” In other words: Super Chickens are out, Super Collaborators are in.

Part of the problem is the high financial reward companies give to their Super Stars by way of recognizing their contribution. We see extreme examples of this in the financial sector where all good Super Stars wait in anticipation for their fabled end of year bonuses. A refreshing change to this is practiced in the Channel Islands law firm: Carey Olsen where Simon Nas the HR Director says in a CIPD podcast on Performance Management regarding their appraisal system: “we have decoupled it from any aspect of reward or ranking…we want the appraisal to be about relating.” In my opinion this is the beginning of the end of the Super Chicken Syndrome.


More and more I am seeing organisations that have evolved a flatter more team based structure where every voice is valued and success is shared across the whole organisation, effectively breaking down internal competitiveness and corporate silo’ism while at the same time increasing shared communication and inter departmental cooperation to create a far more productive and future proof working environment for their employees.

As Margaret Heffernan says at the end of her talk: “We won’t solve our problems if we expect them to be solved by a few Super Men or Super Women. Now we need everyone because it is only when we accept that everybody has value that we will liberate the energy and imagination and momentum we need to create the best beyond measure.”

Oakwood has a skilled and talented Associate Team, with many years of HR, Business and Training experience. Find out who's at the helm of Oakwood International.

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