From Over Here: SuperChickens In The House?

November 16, 2017 Robin Whalen

I’m not talking about hormone injected fast-food bird here. I’m addressing a cultural phenomenon that is all-too prevalent in the Marketing/Communications/Agency industry. Our friends at Direct Focus in Winnipeg told us about this study.

Let me explain.

Once upon a time, an evolutionary biologist from Purdue University, Dr. William Muir, developed a theory called the SuperChicken Model. In short, Dr. Muir studied chickens and productivity. He wanted to understand what could make his chickens more productive.

So, he built a test…

His ‘control’ group was an average flock - just your normal group of birds. He left them alone for 6 generations.

Then he built a ‘test’ group. This second group included the most individually productive chickens (evidenced by how many eggs they laid). They were SuperChickens. And together they formed a SuperFlock. He then left them alone for 6 generations.

And what did he find?

The control group – the average chickens – were doing just fine.

The test group – the SuperChickens – didn’t fare as well. All but 3 were dead. Pecked to death if you will.

How did this happen?

The SuperChickens, a group comprised of individually productive chickens, only succeeded when they suppressed the productivity of the rest of the group.

They simply didn’t work as a team.

Enter: The SuperChicken Agency

How many times have you heard this line…

“I know he is difficult to work with. But, he’s exceptionally creative.”

“I know she has a temper, but she’s incredibly passionate.”

“I know he’s hard to get along with, but he brings in a lot of new business”.

Agencies LOVE their SuperChickens. Businesses love their SuperChickens. In fact, I’ve worked for a holding company that would go so far as to suggest that the Mother of all SuperChickens could essentially get away with just about anything as long as the dollars continued to flow.

The problem is, while those outside the day-to-day business worship a SuperChicken (on the surface), no-one else does. Though the best and brightest get the power and the spotlight, it’s not a sustainable model.

Here’s why:

The SuperChickens are aggressive.

Their behaviour can lead to dysfunctional teams because it becomes less about the end goal, and more about personal victories (no matter the cost). Eventually, chaos ensues. There’s a brilliant TedTalk on the subject. Margaret Heffernan, a Management Consultant, explains the science behind the study. Watch it here.

Enter Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Further research done through MIT supported the premise that some groups were more successful at solving problems than others. And surprisingly, the most successful groups were not those with the highest aggregate IQ.

The most successful groups shared 3 characteristics:

  1. They showed high degrees of social sensitivity to each other (empathy quotient).

  2. They gave roughly equal time to each other. No ‘level-playing’ here.

  3. The groups had more women in them.

Simply put, they had a higher degree of social connectedness than other groups. They were just your regular bunch of chickens. But when they worked together as a team, magic happens. And these chickens ranked being helpful more important than individual intelligence.

Let’s go back to Advertising, shall we? 

We all know that culture makes or breaks an agency. You need teams to respect one another. To listen. To value the contributions from those in every department and from all levels. Otherwise, the long days and nights are no longer worth it, conflict increases and eventually turn-over is the result.

However, in agencies where ideas can flow and grow, professional and respectful conflict leads to better work, everything else falls in line.

Revenue. Profit. Team Spirit. It’s the top line and the bottom line that benefits. Even the soft lines in between.

“Conflict is frequent because candour is safe.”

Herein lies the real benefit. When you work in an environment led by equality vs one over-ruled and over-managed by a few egos, you feel comfortable leaning in to dissenting opinions. Furthermore, you can speak up when you feel the need to. Margaret Heffernan explains the outcome of working with your regular ol’ chicken. She says:

“We won’t solve our problems if we expect them to be solved by a few Supermen or Superwomen. Now we need everybody. Because it is only when we accept that everybody has value do we liberate the energy and imagination and momentum we need to create the best beyond measure.”

What a novel concept. There really are no superstars. So, don’t accept bad behaviour on account of some short-term notion of performance. And don’t overlook the quiet guy in the corner. There is brilliance and value in different packages.

Instead, look for those who work well in a group. Individuals who bring something different to the table.  

Really, Gandhi said it best:

There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there.


"Contrary to popular belief, I'm not always right. But in all seriousness, I've walked the walk in many different aspects and this is just how I see things from over here." 

With a dash of wit and a full serving of insight, Robin Whalen, president of The Tite Group, shares her insights on the things, topics, conversations and general goings-on that have earned her minutes. 

This is an inside look at how her thoughts power her actions. 


Did we win over your minutes? Get more great posts like this in The Tite Report monthly newsletter.

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