Accomplishment is socially judged by ill-defined criteria so that one has to rely on others to find out how one is doing. ~ Albert Bandura
The “Super Chicken” Model
A friend recently said to me, “There’s so much pressure at work to be ‘the best’ – to outshine the others. Morale is awful – I hate going into work most days, and all I can think about in team meetings is how people are going to judge my ideas, if I measure up to others, and if I’m going to lose my job because I’m not ‘the star’ I once was.” His experience reminded me of a TED talk I recently heard warning about the dangers of pitting employees against each other in a race to be perceived as “the best.”
In this TED Talk entitled “Forget the Pecking Order at Work,” , Margaret Heffernan proposes a paradigm shift for how we structure organizations and interact with others. She discusses productivity research involving “super chickens” that challenges the prevailing paradigm of hierarchal models in organizational and social structures. In the opening portion of her talk she cites productivity research by William Muir that suggests an emphasis on hierarchal models that encourage competition may result in increased aggression, dysfunction, and waste. Listening to my friend express his frustration offered an opportunity to reflect on the many different contexts in which “super chicken” dynamics occur – in our personal relationships, in education, and at work – and the high cost that is exacted from us all.
At What Cost??
What happens when we find ourselves pitted against one another in the pursuit of “super chicken” status?
- Zero sum mentality: When we function in a context that assumes the success or achievements of others in some way threatens or decreases our own, we perceive others as threats and scarcity mentality (rather than abundance mentality) sets in. Fear begins to drive our behavior and we become more reactive and rigid in our behavioral repertoire. In group/out group mentality, tribalism, and abuses of power are more likely to occur when one feels threatened by the success or accomplishments of others.
- Hubris syndrome: Well intentioned, talented people can end up engaging in unethical or destructive ways when they are intoxicated by power and/or fearful of the loss of perceived status as a result of the success and achievements of others. Lord David Owen has named this concept “hubris syndrome” and describes it as an acquired personality change when people in positions of power (or perceived power) become intoxicated by their power and begin to make decisions that are irresponsible, risky, and/or destructive.
- Fear of failure (or perceived failure): When we are competing with others to be perceived as “the best,” we may begin to perceive mistakes as “failures” and “weaknesses” to be concealed, rather than as opportunities for learning and growth. In Carol Dweck’s work Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she proposes an alternative to the fixed mindset perspective of viewing failure as weakness and as a threat to one’s competence, and offers growth mindset as an alternative that encourages us to failures and mistakes as opportunities for learning and growth.
- “Hustling for our worthiness”: When we are functioning in a context where we feel we are constantly trying to prove our worth, when we sense that experiencing and expressing the full range of human emotions and being authentic and vulnerable may be perceived as weakness, it’s little wonder that most all of us experience significant internalized shame (Brown, 2010). Few of us have learned effective ways to manage internalized shame and emotional distress, so we often turn to short term, ineffective strategies for managing distress including various avoidance behaviors (numbing, distracting, sensation seeking, etc.) that may work in the short term but ultimately tend to result in increased anxiety and depression.
- Seeming vs. Being: pressure to compete to be perceived as better than others can lead to an emphasis on impression management, or as Stephen Covey describes, an emphasis on “seeming” vs. “being.” Striving to maintain a persona and image that is pleasing to others can lead to incongruence and inauthenticity, creating a significant amount of internal dissonance, psychological distress, and disconnection from an authentic sense of self. Impression management and pressures to compare ourselves to others in an effort to determine our ranking in a social hierarchy have likely increased in the age of social media since Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People was first published nearly 30 years ago.
And if you think this list of potential consequences is ominous, remember what happened to the “super chickens” – all but 3 died. Yikes!!
In Aesop’s fable, The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg, the moral of the story is “greed loses all by striving to gain”. Like the farmer who kills the goose to get at the gold inside, this short-sighted organizational approach destroys value through trying to extract more. We fail to realize that by valuing and nurturing the goose over the gold, we have more to gain in the long term.
An ACT Perspective
Acceptance and commitment therapy/training (ACT) is a mindfulness-based, evidence and empirically supported approach to understanding and changing behavior. ACT can be used in a variety of clinical and non-clinical settings and seeks to increase wellness and vitality through cultivating psychological flexibility, connecting to intrinsic values, and reducing experiential avoidance/cognitive rigidity. ACT seeks to help individuals learn to notice, observe, and accept thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges, etc. in order to be able to take effective action in the present moment.
According to Susan David, “We’re constantly bombarded with messages—from advertisers, culture, families, friends—about what is important and what makes us worthy.” The super chicken model of organizational hierarchies, whether they occur within academic, corporate, or other non-profit contexts, support a social construction of “power” model which requires one’s value and worthiness to be measured relative to another. According to Margaret Heffernan, these models not only tend to result in increased aggression, dysfunction, and waste, but also reduced productivity and creativity within the organization.
What if We Valued Golden-Egged Geese Instead of Super Chickens?
Organizations that value productivity and creativity, along with increased well-being and vitality for its employees, may want to consider an alternative organizational structure. Researchers at MIT found that high achieving and productive groups were not the ones dominated by one or two “super stars.” Even the groups with the highest collective IQs were not found to be the most productive or accomplished. The most successful, productive, and creative groups were those who exhibited:
- High degrees of social connectedness and social sensitivity
- An organizational structure that resembled a network rather than a hierarchy, and
- A culture of helpfulness, candor, and trust
Based on this research, it appears that individuals and organizations that value productivity, creativity, efficiency, and sustainability may want to consider creating cultures that are relational rather than transactional. Cultivate opportunities for interaction that foster social connectedness, candor and safety in relationships and communication, and collaboration over competition.
How do we do this? Moment by moment, of course!
- Authoring individual and corporate values consistent with creating cultures of transparency, honesty, and social connection
- Reconfiguring organizational structures from hierarchal models to networks
- Re-evaluate the social construction of power and success so that they no longer rely on an outdated zero-sum mentality model, and
- Encourage innovation and reasonable risk taking that are rooted in an atmosphere of abundance mentality, generativity, and respect.
What will we choose for ourselves? Will we cultivate ruthless super chickens that burn bright and fade fast or golden-egged geese, collaborating to create innovation and value over the long term? If we are mindful and make space to consider wisely, the choice is truly ours.
Margaret Heffernan – “Forget the Pecking Order at Work”
Brene Brown – The Gifts of Imperfection
Lord David Owen – In Sickness and In Power
Stephen Covey – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People