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What chickens can teach us about hierarchies

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Introduction

Humans work together all over the world. When we do, we tend to organise ourselves into a structure so we can work more effectively. In jobs everywhere you can find bosses, managers and workers.

But does this actually help us work better? It appears that chickens can help us learn the answer. What can chickens teach us about hierarchies? You'd be surprised! Neil and Catherine discuss the chicken experiment and teach you new vocabulary.

This week's question

What is the record number of eggs laid by one chicken in a year? Is it

a) 253

b) 371

c) 426

Listen to the programme to find out the answer.

Vocabulary

hierarchy

a way of organising people at different levels, for example workers in a company

flock of chickens

a group of chickens

productivity

the amount of work done

suppressed

stopped something happening; stopped someone doing something

imposed

forced on

pecking order

a phrase to describe levels of importance in an organisation

Transcript

Note: This is not a word for word transcript

Neil

Hello and welcome to 6 Minute English, I'm Neil.

Catherine

And I'm Catherine.

Neil

Catherine, what's the connection between hierarchies, managers and chickens?

Catherine

Well, I don't know Neil, but I'm, sure you're going to tell me.

Neil

First of all, could you explain for our listeners what a hierarchy is?

Catherine

Of course! A hierarchy is a way of organising people. For example, in a company, where there are people working at different levels. You've got bosses, managers and workers. The workers do the work and the managers have meetings that stop the workers doing the work!

Neil

But where do the chickens come in? We'll find out shortly, but first here is today's question and it is - surprise, surprise - about chickens. What is the record number of eggs laid by one chicken in a year? Is it:

a: 253

b: 371

c: 426

What do you think Catherine?

Catherine

Well, I think most chickens lay an egg once a day, so I think it's 371.

Neil

Well, we will have an answer later in the programme. Now, for hierarchies and chickens. In the radio programme The Joy of 9 to 5, produced by Somethin' Else for the BBC, entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan described an experiment. In this experiment, researchers compared the egg production of a group of average chickens to a group of super-chickens. That's chickens with an above average egg production. Which was the most successful? Here's Margaret Heffernan, and by the way, the noun for a group of chickens is a flock.

Margaret Heffernan

He compares the two flocks over six generations. The average flock just gets better and better and better. Egg production increases dramatically. The super-flock of super-chickens, at the end of six generations, all but three are dead, because the other three have killed the rest. They've achieved their individual productivity by suppressing the productivity of the rest. And that's what we do at work.

Neil

Which flock was most successful?

Catherine

Well, the super-flock actually killed each other, so it turned out that the average flock laid more eggs in total and was more successful.

Neil

Yes, but why was that?

Catherine

Well, the super-chickens must have seen their other flock members not as colleagues, but as competitors. Now to understand this, we have to start with the word productivity. This noun refers to the amount of work that's done. So, on an individual level, the super-chickens achieved productivity because they suppressed the productivity of their flock members. Suppressed here means they 'stopped the other chickens from being productive' by killing them.

Neil

So, what do we learn from this experiment?

Catherine

Well, Margaret Heffernan suggests that we see this kind of behaviour in the human workplace. When everyone is equal, productivity is high, but as soon as there's a hierarchy - as soon as there are managers - things can go wrong because not all managers see their role as making life easier for the workers. They demonstrate their productivity as managers, by interfering with the productivity of the workers.

Neil

But there are other experiments which show that chickens are productive in a hierarchy. How are those hierarchies different though? Here's Margaret Heffernan again.

Margaret Heffernan

So chickens have an inbuilt or, if you like, an inherited hierarchy - that's where we get the term pecking order from. But it's one that they create among themselves, rather than one that's imposed upon them.

Neil

So, which hierarchy works, at least for chickens?

Catherine

Well, the best hierarchy is one that isn't imposed. That means a good hierarchy isn't forced on the chickens. They do well when they create the hierarchy themselves, naturally. They work out the pecking order themselves.

Neil

Pecking order is a great phrase. We use it to describe levels of importance in an organisation. The more important you are, the higher in the pecking order you are. Where does this phrase originate?

Catherine

Well, pecking describes what chickens do with their beaks. They hit or bite other chickens with them. And the most important or dominant chickens, peck all the others. The top chicken does all the pecking, middle-level chickens get pecked and do some pecking themselves, and some chickens are only pecked by other chickens. So, there is a definite pecking order in chickens.

Neil

Right, time to review this week's vocabulary, but before that let's have the answer to the quiz. I asked what the record number of eggs laid by a single chicken in a year was. The options were:

a: 253

b: 371

c: 426

What did you say, Catherine?

Catherine

I said 371.

Neil

Well, lucky you! You're definitely top of the pecking order, aren't you? Because you are right!

Catherine

That's a lot of eggs!

Neil

Indeed. Now, the vocabulary. We are talking about hierarchies - a way to organise a society or workplace with different levels of importance.

Catherine

An expression with a similar meaning is pecking order, which relates to how important someone, or a chicken, is, within a hierarchy.

Neil

A group of chickens is a flock. It's also the general collective noun for birds as well, not just chickens.

Catherine

Another of our words was the noun productivity, which refers to the amount of work that is done.

Neil

And if you suppress someone's productivity, you stop them from being as productive as they could be.

Catherine

And finally, there was the verb to impose. If you impose something, you force it on people. For example, the government imposed new taxes on fuel.

Neil

Well that is the end of the programme. For more from us though, check out Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and of course, our App! Don't forget the website as well - bbclearningenglish.com. See you soon, bye.

Catherine

Bye!

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