Published on July 25th, 2016 | by Nancy F. Clark0
The Surprising Reason You Should Stop Trying To Be So Productive
By Jessica Amortegui—
Would you risk your life if it guaranteed that you could achieve more?
In 1984, a researcher named Robert Goldman found asking such a question wasn’t nearly as crazy as it sounds. He asked 198 elite athletes if they would take an undetectable drug that guaranteed them a gold medal. It would also kill them within five years.
Fifty-two percent said they would take it.
This so-called “Goldman dilemma” seems extreme, but then again these are Olympic athletes. Surely this sacrificial dark side of achievement doesn’t extend beyond the paragons of human potential to us ordinary, everyday achievers. Or does it?
Many of us live and die for a non-stop productivity buzz, a modern day pandemic aptly named the “super chicken phenomenon.” The name took hold after Purdue University biologist William Muir conducted an experiment to better understand the effects of the highly productive using an unsuspecting muse: chickens. Muir discovered that chickens are perfect fodder when it comes to measuring individual variation in productivity — you just count their egg production.
Muir began his experiment by assessing the chickens and putting them into groups based on their performance. The first flock selected was average in terms of productivity. These “slow but steady wins the race” chickens were compared against the more productive flock — a group that Muir dubbed super chickens.
Muir left the chickens for two generations, expecting to see the super chicken flock turn into a breed of productivity thoroughbreds. But that’s not exactly what he found. The first group — the average chickens — looked just as he left them. They were plump, fully feathered, and benefited from a consistent state of increasing egg production. The super chickens, on the other hand, weren’t exactly fat and happy. All but three were dead. The individual superstars had pecked their kin to death.
If there is something strangely relatable about this super chicken scenario, it’s because we know this performance-sorting scheme well. Our companies have fine-tuned capabilities to separate the “threes” from the “fives,” the “high potentials” from the “strong contributors,” or the “top talent” from the “solid performers.” As employees vie to make the super chicken cut and receive validation that their hard work, talent and contributions have been noticed, they feel the seemingly life-or-death pressure to do more. At times, they even peck others down to stay on top.
This biggest problem with this approach is that the so-called management science flies in the face of the science of human performance.
According to Stanford researcher Carol Dweck, people have widely divergent mindsets when it comes to their views on achievement and success. For some people, proving they are smart and talented is what they cling to at all costs. For others, they believe with effort, time and a healthy dose of grit, they can get better–at anything. Talent is not a static commodity but a dynamic process. In Dweck’s terms, the key distinction is that the former have a “fixed” mindset while the latter have a “growth” mindset.
Interestingly, organizations also develop these two mindsets. Dweck’s research found that companies that agreed with the following fixed-mindset statement are 41% less likely to have innovative cultures: “When it comes to being successful, this organization seems to believe that people have a certain amount of talent, and they really can’t do much to change.” But it’s not just innovation that suffers. When it comes to employees’ level of engagement, the degree to which they collaborate, and instances of ethical behavior, growth-mindset companies significantly surpass their fixed-mindset counterparts.
According to Dweck, “Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t praise talent.” Organizations that are thriving, and have employees who are thriving, realize that their people aren’t fully formed. They realize that we are all works in progress. And when our strengths and fallibilities are acknowledged without a “solid performer,” “game changer” or “key talent” label we are unmoored by the pressure to do more, and free to revel in the joy of learning more.
To make this root-level change requires a change to the very assumptions that undergird our workplaces. As Churchill quipped, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” We need our workplaces to shape new ways of managing the vast talent it acquires. In short, we need our companies to say sayonara to the super chicken.
I can’t guarantee your life depends on it, but I can assure you that your happiness—and your company’s innovation—does.
Jessica Amortegui works at Logitech as a leadership development practitioner and committed culture shaper. You can follow her on Twitter @jessamortegui.
Article photo by Thomas Hawk