​Fear the Superchickens

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​Teamwork to accomplish organizational goals often involves a delicate balancing of egos and personalities. The combined action of this group of people must be efficient and effective for teams to be successful. Internal audit is frequently challenged as a team with lack of resources, obstructionist colleagues, and inattentive senior managers. Yet the biggest challenges may come from within, when aggressive employees aren't perceived as team players.

B​usiness leader Margaret Heffernan's "superchicken" model brings to mind the challenges we face in internal audit, so much so that I've gone back and viewed her TED Talk on the subject several times. In it, she describes a research project where scientists studying a flock of chickens separate out the most productive after each egg-laying cycle. Logically, one would think that at the end of multiple egg-laying cycles the superchickens' productivity would have greatly surpassed that of the "normal" chickens. In reality, the normal chickens became full feathered, healthy, and more productive with each cycle. And the flock of superchickens? Aggressive for both food and space, only three remained — the rest had pecked each other to death.

​Why is this story important to our work? It is typical today to place value on those with Type A personalities, individuals who aggressively pursue success and recognition, sometimes oblivious to the casualties left in their wake. These individuals often are elevated to "super" status as they consistently outperform their peers. This, of course, falls apart when other super contenders enter the playing field. Heffernan says it best:

"Superchicken parents fight to get their chicks into the gifted and talented group in kindergarten, then the best private schools, and finally Ivy League colleges. By the time a chick enters the corporate world, he or she is a full-blown superchicken groomed to compete in a high-intensity job with a kill-or-be-killed mentality."

As with the superchickens, aggressive individuals can quickly destroy team productivity. Performance management systems with forced rankings exacerbate the problem, Heffernan says, by reinforcing the mantra of the superchicken model: Others must fail for me to thrive.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • When evaluating my team, am I focused on the success of individual contributors or the productivity and success of the team as a whole?
  • Do I have a superchicken employee or peer impacting audit engagements? What happens when a superchicken auditor meets a superchicken audit client? Could it do long-term damage to internal audit's reputation and important relationships within the organization?
  • Am I part of the flock of superchickens within my audit function more busy battling for resources and attention than productivity and success? Is this creating unnecessary stress and tension in my work environment?
  • Is my audit department a superchicken flock within the organization? Does internal audit thrive only when pointing out others' failures?


If you believe the answer to any one of these questions is "yes," then step back and reevaluate whether the overall productivity and effectiveness of your team is where it could be.

Heffernan goes on to describe a study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where participants were given difficult problems to solve in teams. The most productive team was not the team with the individual with the highest IQ. Nor was it the team with the highest cumulative IQ. The teams that were the most productive were the ones that displayed the highest degree of social awareness and cohesiveness, where every team member had an equal opportunity to share ideas and everyone listened to what others were saying.

Consider this fundamental behavioral pattern at your next team meeting. Does everyone have the opportunity to participate and share ideas or are individuals focused on that next small break in the conversation where they can dump their ideas onto the group? More importantly, during audits, is your team truly listening to what your clients have to say or are they too busy formulating their next finding or recommendation? As Heffernan appropriately points out, "It is social cohesion — built into every coffee break or every time that one team member asks another for help — that leads over time to great results."

That's my point of view — I'd be happy to hear yours. Heffernan's "superchicken" model is an example of the type of out-of-the-box thinking that I will be presenting in future posts to my blog. In the meantime, you can watch Heffernan's talk here.


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