When putting together a team, conventional wisdom dictates that you strive for a mix of personalities and do whatever it takes to build equality within the group. Inequality of status - where it's pretty clear how everyone ranks compared to their peers - discourages people from sharing ideas and can lead to people feeling undervalued or disrespected. These hot human emotions distract teammates from their tasks and can disrupt even the most focused performers.

Or so the theory goes.

Now, new studies are suggesting that a built-in hierarchy can actually improve team performance. And the more pronounced the pecking order, the greater the productivity of the team. 

The Power of the Pecking Order

In the Path to Glory is Paved by Hierarchy, researchers describe how teams in which everyone has equal power experience more conflict, less coordination, and less productivity compared to groups with an established pecking order.

The study confirmed the researchers' theory that equally empowered individuals jockey for control rather than working together to achieve a goal.

Other studies show that flat (not hierarchical) teams tend to rely on signals like gender or dominant personality characteristics to assert their authority. Yet a person's gender, or how comfortable they are with speaking up in meetings, has little correlation with their actual competency. In these teams, performance suffers.

By contrast, groups with a clear hierarchy are more easily able to talk about the best way to delegate and perform tasks and make decisions in a peaceful and efficient manner. These teams have far better outcomes in terms of cooperation and reduced intragroup conflict.

Crucially, hierarchical teams are far more likely than status-ambiguous teams to assign tasks based on competency instead of personal factors, such as how self-confident or self-sacrificing a person is. Competency-based delegation is a major indicator of the likelihood of success or failure for an assigned task. 

Pecking Out a Social Order

The term "pecking order" comes from the chicken world. As a way of creating social order, the dominant, more assertive chickens will literally peck the weaker members of the flock until they submit. Hens high in the pecking order get access to food, water and nesting boxes before the lower ranking hens, who are observed moving out of the way until the higher status chickens have had their fill.

Once everyone understands their place in the pecking order, the chickens do not need to peck each other any more.

The pecking order is an instinct in all animals, and something similar happens in the workplace. While team members do not literally peck each other, they do jostle each other for control of the group.

When the group has established the pecking order, they don't need to fight each other any more. At this point, the group becomes socially cohesive with effective organization and accountability. The group becomes significantly better at working together to achieve something beyond the capabilities of individuals working alone.

Establishing a Pecking Order

The pecking order is a natural process that chickens have to figure out among themselves. Similarly, a workplace pecking order is only effective if teams are permitted to work it out from within.  Unfortunately, teams are rarely given the power to self-organize. There are two factors at play here: the too much talent paradox, and the thorny issue of rankism.

The too-much talent paradox

While you might think that having a number of top-talented individuals is the key to performance, the evidence suggests that too much talent can block the establishment of a pecking order, and thus diminish the performance of your team.

A recent study published in Psychological Science found that there's a talent saturation point in every team. Looking specifically at elite sports, researchers found that adding a single top-performing player boosts the team's performance. But adding several high flyers stops the group from becoming an integrated whole. What seems to be happening is, the exceptional performers continue to peck at each other for access to the scarce resource of leadership. No one settles into a pecking order, and the team forever lacks internal cohesion.

One of the most popular TED talks, "Why it's important to forget the pecking order at work," by Margaret Heffernan, highlights the problem of nurturing star performers at the expense of others, or as Heffernan calls it, breeding the "Super Chickens." Super Chickens succeed at work by using their power and influence to get what they want regardless of the needs of others. It's an environment that suppresses idea sharing, productivity and innovation, and makes the ordinary chicken feel unsafe within their groups.  

Is it a pecking order or is it rankism?

Teams work better with a pecking order, but there's a difference between a pecking order and rankism. The first creates a cohesive social structure based on competency. The second is an overt assertion of superiority that typically takes the form of putting others down.

One of the defining traits of a pecking order is that every participant has a role to play based on his or her strengths and preferences. It's a hierarchy that team members themselves establish through a process of debate and iteration. Members fight for such roles as team leader, coordinator or specialist based on their own competencies and how they see themselves within the group. Conflict will continue until every person is settled into a role that suits his or her own self interest. It's not about rising to the top of the coop, since not every personality will seek out power and leadership. Rather, it's about what you can do for the team today.

Rankism, by contrast, is a formally delineated hierarchy that assigns status according to a person's job title or experience. These hierarchies tend to emerge when a group imports the pecking order from the organizational hierarchy, instead of working it out for themselves. People feel exploited, degraded and disrespected in this type of hierarchy. They cannot see what value they bring to the team, and their talents go unrecognized.

Bottom Line: Encourage Pecking Orders for Better Team Performance

Every team will benefit from a period of conflict where they can openly clash over status, and literally jostle or "peck" each other over people's authority or competence within the group. Once the pecking order is established, the group will coordinate and work together better, and members will feel safe within the group.

If there's not much clarity about the pecking order, it can be helpful to tackle the problem head-on. Just remember to let your team members peck out their own status. Otherwise, you're just a backyard flock owner, rooting out the very behavior that lets the chickens get along peacefully.

Jayne Thompson
Jayne is a B2B tech copywriter and the editorial director here at Truity. When she’s not writing to a deadline, she’s geeking out about personality psychology and conspiracy theories. Jayne is a true ambivert, barely an INTJ, and an Enneagram One. She lives with her husband and daughters in the UK. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.