The (Short-Lived) Flight of the Super Chicken

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

"What the hell is a super chicken," you ask? Well, it starts with a story.

In the 1990s, Purdue University Professor Dr. William Muir set out to research egg-laying productivity among hens. To do this, he segregated hens into two flocks of nine: one of average egg producers and one of bountiful egg producers. Both flocks were left to breed over the course of multiple egg-producing generations. An evolutionary biologist, Muir was confident the second flock of "super chickens" would become, over time, a flock of "super-super chickens" with increased egg production never before seen.

Something about heritability and other science stuff...

He was wrong.

The results were highly contradicting. Egg production significantly plummeted. However, it was the reason why that was more astonishing. Of the nine "super chickens" from which Muir began, only three remained alive. The other six had been killed (murdered, really) and the remaining three were emaciated from incessant attacks on each other: gaunt, visibly distraught, and bare of a single feather.

And that other flock of, well, average hens? They were fat and happy and fully feathered with a 160% increase in egg production only a few generations in.

Two things, while likely understood here, should be pointed out. One, it turns out the "super chickens" were only "super" in that they had perfected the art of bullying and shined by suppressing the productivity of the hens caged with them. Two, the average hens, while originally from different cages, were never caged with any of the "super chickens." They never experienced that toxic environment.

The average hens were not just comfortable in a flock, they thrived from togetherness.

When Dr. Muir set out to conduct his experiment, it's likely he had no idea how important his research would be to the frameworks of team building and organizational culture among other things. Yet, the story of the "super chicken" is almost always discovered in relation to these frameworks or similar discussions versus the field of animal science from which it came.

Performance-sorting is, like it or not, our way of life. School. College. Sports. Politics. Corporate life. The list goes on and on representing decades of unnatural selection that predisposes us to a world where "super chickens" get most of the resources, power, and glory. Think Blake from Glengarry Glen Ross and you get the idea.

Margaret Heffernan recounts Muir's experiment and adds human context from personal research and this MIT study in a 2015 TED Talk.

Mario Moussa, Madeline Boyer, and Derek Newberry, in their work Committed Teams, cite a computer-based battle simulation which compared the performance of teams with empowering leaders to those with directive, command and control-style leaders while member roles and access to information varied across the team in purposeful degrees. The empowered teams, who emphasized trust-building and autonomy, started slower without the efficiency of clear direction. However, as the simulation became more dynamic and ambiguous, they consistently outperformed their counterparts.

The teams deemed "less likely to succeed" accomplished just that by capitalizing on information sharing, task assignment, and the ability to adapt on the fly. What was the difference? They established trust. They knew each other's competencies, strengths, and weaknesses. They complemented each other's talents. They built real, lasting relationships.

Just like the average hen, they were not only comfortable in the flock, they thrived from the togetherness.

Sometimes it's a chicken-eat-chicken world out there. When you find yourself faced with this dilemma, just remember the story about the (short-lived) flight of the "super chicken." Then look to your team.

You won't be wrong.

#leadershipdevelopment #leadershiptraining #leadershipcoach #leadershipcoaching #leadershipmatters #leadershipgoals #leadershiptips #leadershiplessons #leadershipteam #team #teamwork #teambuilding #highperformanceteams #bhfyp

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