For organizational success, forget the pecking order

Maybe it's time to stop thinking competition will make your employees do their best work.

Competition is a defining element of many industries. Companies compete against each other for market share, and employees compete against one another within organizations for promotions, awards and recognition. While we are generally conditioned to regard competition as a source of motivation, it distorts the social relations that actually lead to increased collaboration, productivity and profitability.

In a recent TED Talk, Margaret Heffernan, an entrepreneur, former CEO of five companies and author, said culture of helpfulness routinely outperforms individual intelligence.

"Helpfulness means I don't have to know everything, I just have to work among people who are good at getting and giving help," she says.

What really drives helpfulness is people getting to know each other. Ms. Heffernan said her first software company wasn't doing very well, and when she looked closer at the reason why, she realized "the brilliant, creative people I'd hired didn't know each other." Each of Ms. Heffernan's employees was so narrowly focused on their own individual work, they didn't know the person sitting right next to them. Once Ms. Heffernan implemented changes in the company that encouraged employees to get to know each other, momentum picked up.

The science to back it up

Ms. Heffernan discussed an experiment on productivity by evolutionary biologist William Muir, PhD, at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Dr. Muir divided a flock of chickens into two groups. The first group he left alone for six generations. In the second group, Dr. Muir only selected the most productive chickens for breeding — those who produced the most eggs — to create a "superflock" of "superchickens."

After six generations, the first group was in good shape. The chickens were healthy and egg production had increased dramatically. In the second group, all but three superchickens were dead. They had pecked all of the others to death. What Dr. Muir found was that the individually productive chickens had only survived by suppressing the productivity of the rest.

This experiment illustrates the shortcomings of systems that emphasize competition and individual success over collaboration.

"I've never really felt very motivated by pecking orders or by superchickens or by superstars," said Ms. Heffernan. "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." 

The new top predictor of success: Social connectedness

A research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge set out to find what makes some groups more successful than others, according to Ms. Heffernan. Researchers divided hundreds of volunteers into groups and gave each group very hard problems to solve. As expected, some groups were much more successful than others, but the high-achieving groups were not those with one or two members with extraordinarily high IQs, or even groups with the highest aggregate IQ.

The most successful groups were those that showed the highest degree of social sensitivity to one another.

More specifically, members of the highest-performing groups had high scores on empathy tests, they were mostly women (which could be a doubling down on the empathy factor, as women typically score higher on these tests) and they gave each member of the group equal time to talk so not one voice dominated, according to Ms. Heffernan. The key to success in this experiment was social connectedness.

"So how does this play out in the real world? Well, it means that what happens between people really counts, because in groups that are highly attuned and sensitive to each other, ideas can flow and grow. People don't get stuck. They don't waste energy down dead ends," said Ms. Heffernan.

Social connectedness grows with time

"Companies don't have ideas; only people do. And what motivates people are the bonds and loyalty and trust they develop between each other. What matters is the mortar, not just the bricks," said Ms. Heffernan.

Social capital — the reliance and interdependency that builds trust — is that mortar. According to Ms. Heffernan, social capital is what gives organizations momentum and makes them robust. To cultivate social capital, organizations must invest time.

Teams that work together longer are more successful, because it takes time to develop the trust and relationships required for real candor and openness. When one company decided to synchronize office coffee breaks so people could have time to talk to each other, profits increased by $15 million, and employee satisfaction went up 10 percent.

With closer work relationship, conflict is inevitable. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing — disagreement, conflict and problem solving are often the source of the best ideas.

Will encouraging social capital be the end of superstars — and superchickens?

Most superstars in the music industry don't last long — it's the outstanding collaborators who achieve life-long careers and success, because helping others achieve success brings out their own best work, Ms. Heffernan said.

In a culture that truly encourages and values social capital, there really shouldn't be superstars. Of course, some individuals stand out for personal achievements, and not all work is done in groups. But when an organization takes down the constructs that have upheld a pecking order, it can realize the potential of its entire workforce instead of grooming just a few individuals for success.

"Now, rivalry has to be replaced by social capital," said Ms. Heffernan. "For decades, we've tried to motivate people with money, even though we've got a vast amount of research that shows that money erodes social connectedness. Now, we need to let people motivate each other. And for years, we've thought that leaders were heroic soloists who were expected, all by themselves, to solve complex problems. Now, we need to redefine leadership as an activity in which conditions are created in which everyone can do their most courageous thinking together."

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