Superchickens and what they can teach us about diversity

Jul 12, 2018

by Kenneth Pruitt, Director of Diversity Training for Diversity Awareness Partnership

In a TED Talk featured on the TED Radio Hour podcast, Margaret Heffernan tells a story about research on group cohesion in chickens. For one particular study, two groups of chickens were gauged on productivity over the course of multiple generations. One group was a collection of the best chickens available, a veritable team of what she calls “superchickens.” The other group was a basic control group: some productive, some not productive, perhaps some with desirable breeding traits, perhaps some with undesirable traits. Productivity in a group of chickens, so it happens, can be easily measured by a particular stick: how many eggs are laid. After several generations, the results surprised the researchers. The superchicken group had all but decimated itself. Only a couple of chickens remained, the others having pecked each other to death. The control group, however, was thriving even better than it had at the outset of the study. A group overflowing with the same powerful traits, it seems, is not always the best approach to increasing group productivity or the capacity to solve problems.

In the human world, we can find a not-quite-as-bloody parallel in Bletchley Park, the now famous group of Brits working to crack the communication codes of the Nazis during World War II. There were obviously mathematicians, physicians, and other people with training under an umbrella we would now call STEM, but there were also folks with backgrounds in philosophy, history, and literature. What in the world would a philosopher or a crossword puzzle expert offer to a group of code-crackers that a mathematician might not? As it turns out, a lot. The group at Bletchley Park did eventually crack the Nazis’ code…twice.

In his book, The Difference, Scott E. Page does his level best to describe the data, research, and systems theory thinking that supports diversity, specifically for him, cognitive diversity. Page repeats throughout his book that the connection between identity diversity (think race, gender, age) and cognitive diversity is specious at best, and mysteriously alluring at worst. At most companies looking to create a more diverse workforce, for example, identity diversity is what is aimed at most often. Unfortunately, the research says over and over again that a group that has high levels of identity diversity solves problems at about the same level of quality as a heterogeneous group over time.

However—and here’s the hope that we in the field of diversity professionals need to really think deeply about—there is a much wider range of variance in outcomes among more diverse groups. In other words, a diverse group will perform on average about as well as a non-diverse group, sometimes they’ll do a lot worse, and sometimes they’ll do a lot better. So, how do we harness that diversity so that there’s less variance, particularly upwards and onwards towards the top right corner of the graph where your organization’s mission ekes ever closer to its vision?

First, people have to feel a sense of identity safety. They need to be able to confidently say, “Who I am at my core will be accepted in this group. There’s nothing about me that I think is significant that will be lessened or ignored here. All of me belongs here.” Second, those identity-safe folks need to feel a sense of psychological safety. “I can try weird things out in an attempt to improve what we do here, and have it be a mistake. I can screw up here. I can innovate here, and I won’t always succeed, and that’s ok.” Finally, information and ideas need to flow across the organization. The puzzle experts among us need to be able to see the proofs of the mathematicians and offer their unique perspective. If the mathematicians are too concerned with hoarding the information for their own self-gain, no one cracks the code.

Importantly, too, if your organization is too hierarchical for information to flow across the organization (because it’s not even close to being flat), none of these potential inclusion solutions stand a chance. Step back and first hire a consulting firm who’s strong in HR or OD to make your organization more malleable.

Inclusion can’t work if everyone’s trying to be a superchicken.