Since the seminal work of Charles Spearman at the turn of the 20th century, we have been studying, measuring, and eventually selecting for, individual intelligence. If you want to, you can find out if you’re smarter than a fifth grader. Until recently, we haven’t looked for a similar general intelligence factor in teams. In the past couple of years, researchers at MIT have been studying the possibility that there is such a thing as collective intelligence. In an article published in Science in 2014, they report their early evidence that some teams might be smarter than others.
There are smart and less smart teams
The research, which used 10 different types of tasks ranging from simple problem solving, to brainstorming, to a complex research and development problem, showed that teams that were smarter at one type of task tended to be smarter on all the other tasks. The strength of the collective intelligence factor in teams rivals the general intelligence factor in individuals.
So what accounts for the smarter and less smart teams?
It’s not about the kumbaya
The first place the researchers looked to predict collective intelligence was at the factors you might think would be associated with better teamwork. They tested to see if group cohesiveness, motivation, or satisfaction might be the source of better performance…nope.
You being smarter doesn’t help
I know this might hurt, but I need to break it to you that you being super smart doesn’t account for the difference in team performance either. Although there was some relationship between the intelligence of the individual members and team performance, it wasn’t nearly as predictive of team performance as the overall team intelligence factor. Neither the average intelligence of each of the team’s members, nor the maximum intelligence of the team’s smartest member were highly predictive of how they performed on a wide variety of tasks. Sorry Einstein, it’s not just you dragging your team along.
So what gives?
So what gives a team its intelligence? Well, in this early research, there were two things that differentiated smarter and less smart teams.
The number one, most predictive factor in the intelligence of the group in performance on a wide variety of tasks was the equality of participation. Yup, that’s right, teams whose members spoke roughly the same amount performed significantly better. Teams that had members who dominated the discussion did significantly more poorly.
Jeepers, a finding like this could put someone like me out of business! All you need is a trained monkey to tally up the number of times each member of the team has spoken and you’re off to the races. And it works! At an offsite last week, Craig shared these findings with the team on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning it looked like an entirely new group. People who had been overpowering on day one were more measured. People who had been quiet made really insightful points. It was great! Try it at your next meeting.
The Eyes have it
Although equalizing the participation in your discussions will take you a long way with very little effort, there is one other factor that predicted team performance and this one can take a lifetime to develop. The second predictor of team intelligence was the social sensitivity of the team members. The researchers measured each participant’s ability to discern a person’s emotional state from observing their face (using a standardized assessment tool). Teams that had members who were good at picking up emotional states were smarter than teams that had members who were poor at it.
Now rather than being out of business, I’m worried I’ll never be able to retire. The relative scarcity of people who perceive the emotional state of their teammates is striking. Far too many of us are too wrapped up in our own emotional experience of teamwork to have any bandwidth left to notice what’s going on for others. And now we know that our lack of perceptiveness has a huge cost to the performance of the team.
At your next meeting
In your next meeting, try applying these findings to improve the outcomes of your discussions. First, monitor your contribution. If you’re speaking more than your fair share of the time, dial it back. If your tendency is to be quiet, force yourself to share some of what’s going on in your head.
Then, move to the more advanced challenge: pay attention to the emotional state of your teammates. Listen carefully to what they are saying and try to understand the emotion beneath their comments. Watch their body language and translate it into the feelings underlying it. Think differently about your contribution based on what you see. Is there an issue that needs to be raised? Does the intensity of the conversation need to be toned down? Does someone need your support? Adjust accordingly.
So there you have it, some insight from the world of research; and this time with practical, immediate takeaways that you can apply to your team.
I’d love to hear from you about any attempts to implement these ideas on your team. Use the comments below.