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BBC 6 minute English-What chickens can teach us about hierarchies

BBC 6 minute English-What chickens can teach us about hierarchies

BBC 6 minute English-What chickens can teach us about hierarchies


Transcript of the podcast

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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