What can chickens tell us about the success of teams in the workplace?


In the 1990’s professor William M Muir conducted an experiment to determine how he could increase the egg-laying productivity of hens. To do this, he began with one flock of average hens. Muir then selectively bred the best egg-producing hens for six generations to create a flock of ‘superchickens’. In addition, Muir also kept another group of average chickens whom simply bred normally. At the end of the six generations, Muir found that the group of average chickens were healthy and egg production had increased. Sadly on the other hand, the productivity of the superchickens had decreased and all but three chickens had pecked each other to death.

Does this sound familiar or have you worked in an environment like this?

infographic with questions asking whether you are a superchicken


If you follow us on Facebook, you may have seen we recently shared a link to a TED Radio Hour, The Meaning of Work. In this episode, serial entrepreneur and “management thinker” Margaret Heffernan discusses how this superchicken method of building teams, where the value is placed on star employees who outperform others, has been extensively used by companies over the last 50 years. And by only selecting the superstars and giving them all the resources and power, the result has been much the same as William Muir’s experiment: aggression, dysfunction and waste. She argues that “if the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live.” Margaret Heffernan.


According to Heffernan, collaboration is key! Working together & alongside other brilliant people towards a mutual goal is the way forward in the modern workforce. Heffernan sites a MIT study that found the groups that worked best together exhibited the following three things:

  1. Social sensitivity (empathy) towards each other
  2. Everyone had and gave equal time and contribution
  3. There were more women in the successful groups than in the groups that failed

Heffernan goes on to explain that the best way to manage and motivate people is through social capital: the reliance and interdependency that builds trust. Trust takes time, but trust also compounds over time. Teams that work together for longer get better because it takes time to develop the trust you need for real candour and openness. She sites a company that implemented something as simple as synchronising coffee breaks so that people would have more time to talk to each other. The results were that profits went up 15 million dollars and employee satisfaction went up 10 percent.

Social capital turns good ideas into great ones because teams push and challenge each other through honest discussion and collaboration.

Lego man inside chicken suit

Is there an ideal team size?

When it comes to sports, teams have a specific number of players. A rugby league team has 13, a basketball team has 5 and a netball team has 7. But when it comes to the workplace there is no fixed rule when it comes to the ideal team size. Teams that are too small risk having a skills gap in an important area while teams that are too large risk a loss of productivity and collaboration.

The size question is one that has been asked since the 1800’s, when French agricultural engineer Maximillian Ringelmann performed a tug of war style experiment and discovered that individual members of a group became increasingly less productive as the size of their group increased. In the seventies, Ingham et al coined the phrase “social loafing” for the phenomenon in the workplace where the more people there are, the more a person can get away with and the less work they have to do.

Team tug of war ideal team size

So, how can you avoid the Ringelmann Effect or Social Loafing in your organisation? And is there an ideal team size for your workplace?

Of course, there isn’t a one team size fits all number that will suit every organisation. However, in the latest edition of micenet Lynne Schinella agrees that small teams are better than large. “Flight Centre allows no more than seven in a team, and Jeff Bezos from Amazon says unless a team can be fed with two pizzas, the team is too large,” Lynne Schinella.

Here at Pinnacle when it comes to team sizes in our team building programs we agree that smaller teams work best. Usually we try and keep our team sizes around the 7-person mark, however anywhere between 6 – 10 is ideal. By keeping team sizes within this range we find this provides the best environment for all members of the team to contribute and have their creativity, ideas, energy & experience flourish.