I stumbled upon an absolutely brilliant TED talk about how we need to forget about the “pecking order” within workplaces and how we need to focus on team social connectedness as a strategy to enhance teamwork and productivity.1 I found the analogy in the presenter’s talk so incredibly poignant for the work we do every day in hospital medicine. As we work to solve incredibly challenging problems daily, we do so among continuously changing and highly charged teams. How can we create our teams to be the most effective and productive to serve the greater good?
The speaker, Margaret Heffernan, is an entrepreneur and former CEO of five companies. She tells a story about a study performed by an evolutionary biologist by the name of William Muir of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.2 Muir undertook a series of studies evaluating the social order and productivity of chickens (as measured by egg production) and the team characteristics that make chickens more or less productive. After watching flocks of chickens for several generations, he picked out the most productive chickens and put them all together in a “super flock.” He then watched their productivity over the next several generations and compared their productivity to those in the regular flock.
What he found was that the regular flock became more productive and most of the members of the super flock were dead!
The most productive members of the super flock had essentially pecked the other members to death. He surmised that the only reason the super chickens were initially productive was by suppressing the productivity of the original flock members. The chickens in the regular flock that were initially less aggressive (and less productive) over time sustained fewer injuries and were able to be more productive in the absence of super chickens. The energy that the animals had previously invested in negative behaviors (pecking, injuries, and healing) was redirected into positive behaviors (making eggs).
Muir and his team have gone on to research a tool to predict social aggressiveness and social agreeableness in individual animals. Those high on the socially agreeable scales (and low on the socially aggressive scales) are more valuable for producing highly effective teams of agricultural animals by enhancing group dynamics, social interactions, and actual productivity.
Heffernan argues that we have run most businesses (hospitals included) and many societies (at least capitalistic ones) in the super chicken model. In this model, we view leadership as a trait to be individually owned and perfected, and we think that leaders are supposed to have all the answers. In order to determine our leaders, we charge highly competent people to compete against one another as if in a talent contest. It has long been thought that to be successful as teams, we should recruit the best and brightest, pit them against on another, and see who wins, then promote the winner, put them in charge of everything, and give them all the resources they could want or need to be a super chicken.
But this model inevitably suppresses the remainder of the flock and leads to aggression and waste.
In many scenarios in our hospitals, physicians view themselves as and act like super chickens; we try to be the hardest working, the brightest, and the most powerful. How many times have we heard of or witnessed circumstances where a physician suppresses the candor or opinion from other disciplines on the care team? I think we all know physicians (ourselves included) who demand the role of decision maker and ignore the opinions or needs of the remainder of the team, including patients or their family.
So if we should not be subscribing to the super chicken theory, then what type of leadership structures should we be subscribing to within medical teams to produce the best outcomes for ourselves and for our patients and their families?
A study performed by MIT scientists gives us some insight. Researchers found that when random groups of people are given very difficult problems to solve (e.g., think about diagnostic dilemmas or very difficult patients), certain group attributes made it more likely that the group would be successful in solving these difficult problems. The groups that were most effective were not those with a few people with extremely high IQs or with the highest collective IQ. The teams that were most effective and able to solve difficult problems were those that showed high degrees of social sensitivity among members (i.e., empathy). The highest-performing teams gave roughly equal time to each member (e.g., think about physicians, pharmacists, social workers, case managers, consultants on a typical medical team). They also found the highest-performing teams had more women in them. (I feel so redeemed!)
In summary, what they learned from these experiments was that the most successful teams were more socially connected and more highly attuned and sensitive to one another. This is not to say that highly successful teams were leaderless. There is absolutely a vital role that leaders play in such teams. In Jim Collins’ famous book Good to Great, in studying leadership and teams, he did not find the best leaders were super chickens who autocratically made unilateral decisions. Instead, he found the best leaders function more like facilitators, having the humility and skill to draw out shared solutions from large participatory teams.3 Doesn’t this sound like how a hospitalist should run multidisciplinary rounds?
The other major attribute that the MIT researchers noticed about highly functional teams is that each and every member of the team was extremely willing and able to give and receive help. They found that teams with high mutual understanding and trust were more likely to seamlessly—and almost effortlessly—give and receive help from one another. They ended up acting as one another’s social support network. If any team member was confronted by a difficult problem or situation, each felt confident that it could be easily solved with the collective skill and wisdom of the team.
As a result of such research, some companies have developed and implemented strategies to enhance such social capital, such as synchronizing coffee breaks and disallowing coffee mugs at individual desks. These companies consider it a vital strategic mission to ensure that team members get to know and understand one another and that they serve as a social support network at work. They believe that it is reliance and interdependency that ensures trust and enhances productivity.
So what really matters is the mortar, not just the bricks.
For hospital medicine teams, what we need to do is accept that teams work best when every member has a voice and is valued. When others look to us (usually seen as team leaders) to make all the decisions (as if we are super chickens), we need to empower our team members to make decisions with us.
We need to actively work toward this model of being a team leader, break any cycles of dependency that we have set up, and produce better outcomes.
We need to avoid acting like super chickens and appreciate and empower a true team effort.
We need to stop accepting that management and promotions occur by talent contests that pit employees against one another and insist that rivalry at every level has to be replaced by social capital and social connectedness.
Only then will our leadership result in creating effective and productive bricks and mortar. TH
- Heffernan M. Margaret Heffernan: why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work. TED Talks. June 16, 2015. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vyn_xLrtZaY&feature=youtu.be.
- Steeves SA. Scientists find method to pick non-competitive animals, improve production. Available at: https://news.uns.purdue.edu/x/2007a/070212MuirSelection.html.
- Collins J. Good to Great. New York, N.Y.: HarperBusiness; 2011.