Productivity vs. The Pecking Order

Ideas come from people, not companies—and the best ideas emerge the quickest when people are free to communicate and collaborate. A workspace that is designed to foster these types of interactions can truly enable a more collaborative company culture.

Article - Social Physics

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In her excellent TED talk, Margaret Heffernan poses a question that she says should be obvious: if we are aware that a collaborative culture—one where simply asking and offering help is respected—generates faster solutions, why do most organisations still revolve around a competitive, “pecking order?”

To illustrate this competitive, aggressive pecking order, Heffernan references an interesting experiment conducted by evolutional biologist William Muir on the productivity of chickens. For six generations, Muir left one flock of chickens alone, and in a different flock he bred only the most productive chickens—the ones laying the most eggs. By selecting the most productive chickens in each generation of his “super flock,” Muir hoped to see “super productivity,” especially when compared to the normal flock.

After six generations, however, the normal flock was doing just fine with health and productivity flourishing. However, his super flock had diminished to just three. The top three chickens had pecked the rest to death, achieving their individual productivity only by suppressing, and quite literally snuffing out, the productivity of the rest.

Collaboration vs. The Pecking Order

“So how does this play out in the real world?”, Heffernan asks. In many workplaces, star employees are often rewarded for their individual successes. Heffernan suggests that businesses should focus instead on building social capital within the workplace—therefore shifting the focus from the individual to the team in order to foster better collaboration and helpfulness in the workplace. As my colleague pointed out in a different blog post, creating an environment that gives employees the freedom they need to discuss ideas and innovate is important. Equipping the office with the right type of collaborative workspace and meeting rooms in terms of size, privacy, availability, and flexibility can help to encourage teamwork and more interaction among employees who, in turn, can work smarter and faster.

“Now, helpfulness sounds really boring, but it's absolutely core to successful teams, and it routinely outperforms individual intelligence,” says Heffernan. “Helpfulness means I don't have to know everything, I just have to work among people who are good at getting and giving help.”

To build a better foundation of social capital in the office, an organisation should also take a closer look at Social Physics, which is the study of how people communicate and collaborate with each other. When applied to the workplace, Social Physics suggests that people who communicate and collaborate with others routinely outperform those who work alone. And people who collaborate with AND outside their circle of acquaintances create the best and most diverse ideas. For example, simply changing the seating arrangement in the office to encourage more cross-departmental conversation can be the difference in generating better ideas and finding solutions faster.

Building better social capital in the workplace is more than just building an environment of helpfulness. “It means that what happens between people really counts,” said Heffernan. “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.”

“And for years, we've thought that leaders were heroic soloists who were expected, all by themselves, to solve complex problems,” said Heffernan. “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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