What we can learn from chickens

Brown hen and egg.

About 20 years ago, geneticists at Purdue University in Indiana set up an experiment to learn more about natural selection, by studying the egg-laying productivity of two groups of chickens.

In the first group, the ‘free flock’, chickens could roam and mingle as they pleased, with no pressure to produce. The second group, by contrast, was made up of all the most productive hens, housed together and encouraged to compete. The idea was to see whether increasing competition would increase productivity.

Several generations later, the free flock was laying eggs at a brisk and productive pace.  The hens seemed happy, the atmosphere calm and contented – and they passed their days doing pretty much as they pleased (which often involved laying eggs).

In the high-achievers’ flock, by contrast, the story was a rather less happy one. Many of the hens were dead, pecked to death by rival birds that had identified them as a threat. Those that survived were eking out a strained and unproductive existence, focused more on protecting themselves and harrying each other than on laying eggs.

The researchers had made a fascinating, if accidental, discovery: when you create a competitive culture among chickens, not only does it not make them more productive – it can have seriously destructive side-effects.

William Muir, the world-renowned geneticist who conducted the study, said that when he showed the carnage to one of his colleagues, she said: ‘That reminds me of my department.’

I suspect a lot of people in business might say the same.

The chicken story is one of the examples quoted by Margaret Hefferman in her book A Bigger Prize, which is a compelling deconstruction of the traditional view that competition is always a good thing.

Hefferman argues that the importance of competition in sport (fuelled by financial incentives) has prompted an epidemic of cheating, bad behaviour and destructive drug use. If you want examples, consider the chequered recent history of FIFA, the Olympics and the tour de France.

Similarly, the world of business – and particularly, in recent years, financial services – is littered with examples of bad decisions prompted by a culture of competition. Bankers offloading toxic mortgages to boost their bonus pot. Executives holding back profit, so they can hit their target in two consecutive quarters rather than declaring it all in one. Managers claiming credit for the work done by others.

As tasks and ways of working become more opaque and complex, we’re effectively encouraging people to ‘game’ the system and to put short-term self-interest ahead of bigger and more worthy motivations.

Which is not to say that competition is always a bad thing.

Just so long as we remember which flock of chickens we’d rather belong to.

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