Sunday 8 January 2017

Egos, Equality and the death of the Super-Chicken

“These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?” The New Yorker

Am I the only person who is thoroughly depressed with their New Year social media feed? At every turn I am assaulted by hand-wringing posts and articles predicting the end of days .  But there's a notable lack of recommendations of action. Just endless analysis of the implications of the tumultuous global events of 2016.

I don't feel qualified to comment on whether we're in a re-run of the 1930s.  I just hope we're not.  But those doom-mongering commentators and I do agree on one thing.  Narcissists are on the increase and that's bad for business as well as bad for world security.  Where have they all come from?  Instagram, Whats App and other platforms must play a part.  Selfies have a way of making the most modest of us more focused on ourselves and the image we project.  Our love affair with reality TV must contribute.

'The Donald' is their new tribal leader. He may be the first global narcissist cross-over. He made a successful career out of developing and promoting a towering ego first in business then in reality television where narcissism is an entry criteria. And getting yourself elected against all the odds as the leader of the free world has got to make his ego hit new heights.  Anyone might start believing they're a bit special.

There's another common theme in those 2017 narratives. That right-wing populist leaders are rising because we've all got fed up with left wing liberals who don't provide charismatic visionary leadership that speaks to our priorities.  Perhaps.  But in politics as in business, our expectations of leaders have changed.  And whether we know it or not, we're reaping the results of our own habits. .

It's all about the super-chickens

Award-winning author and business leader Margaret Heffernan sheds light on this in a recent Ted Talk. She explains that  for the past fifty years modern management has followed the super-chicken theory.  It was named after an experiment by geneticist William Muir.  He took two flocks of chickens and bred them for six generations.  The first group was left completely alone.  In the second group he selected only the most productive chickens - based on egg laying - and bred them together to produce 'super-chickens'. After six generations the first group were happy, healthy and egg production had been boosted significantly.  In the second group only three chickens remained.  They had pecked all the others to death.

Margaret Heffernan: Why it's time to forget the pecking order at work

And so it is in business.  Organisations are wedded to the culture of the superstar in the belief that super results will ensue.  We aim to create the 'best of the best' and promote individual leaders with vision and charisma.

What's wrong with a bit of healthy competition?
Oh, that always makes women sigh.   Another Trump speciality, it's the bedrock of most reality TV and the rallying cry of the super-chicken.

As we can see, it turns out there's quite a lot wrong with needless competition and this path doesn't work any better for us than chickens. We know this really, but seem unable to learn from experience and find ourselves again and again bemoaning the lack of leadership choices.  Fillon or Le Pen? Clinton or Trump?  We are so hardwired, we are unable to break out. 

In response to Heffernan's Ted Talk, Reuven Gorsht, then head of Customer Strategy at SAP wrote:
"We criticize leaders today not because they are less capable than they were in the past but because we expect more than they can deliver. Our expectations of leaders have grown astronomically because of increasing complexity and the rate of change, causing our anxiety to go through the roof. No wonder the superflock is focused on killing each other. Imagine the pressure and the level of competitiveness needed just to survive".

So what's the alternative? 
Heffernan's talk cited three key common features of the most successful teams in an MIT experiment.  They were:
  • Empathy - team members showed high degrees of social sensitivity to each other
  • Balance - they gave similar amounts of time to all members so that no voice dominated and no one was a passenger
  • Women - the teams contained more women
Not only did the most successful teams feature more women, they also featured attributes that have often been described as 'female'.  Other research supports this.  But our addiction to the superstar culture usually overrides the data. Which is worrying because we've never had a more urgent need to crack this problem. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School says:
“There’s a growing recognition that most of today’s truly important problems related to the environment, related to smart cities, related to health care simple cannot be solved without cross-disciplinary collaboration.”
Highly functional teams are the way forward and there is evidence that women tend to prefer team environments and men individual ones.  The snag is that this is usually seen as negative - driven by a fear of individual competition whereas men relish it.  Digging into this issue, I came across a a fascinating experiment which tested the choices men and women would make - individual or team - when money was involved. It showed that the women chose teamwork more often than men.  "Of course" I hear you say.  "Surely it makes sense to put more brains together.  Why limit it to one person when you could benefit from the wisdom of many". "No brainer".  But time after time, tests show that men have more confidence in themselves - and this experiment showed that the higher the stakes, the more they trusted their own judgement over that of a group.

Clearly we're not giving off the right vibes or everyone would pick teams.  So if we want to make a real change, we have to overcome this view that women pick team activities not because of the logic of the power of a group but because they are afraid of individual competition - and of being judged on their own.

As we look forward into the uncertain complexities of this year surely that has to be a sensible area for focus.  We just need to gather the confidence to call out the super-chicken and argue our preferences with confidence - as a positive choice with better outcomes.

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