How can you make your team smarter?

The brain at work

If you want your team to be smarter – to enhance its performance on technical tasks – what is your best bet?

  1. Increase the average IQ of your team by adding smarter people
  2. Add more females to the team if the group is mainly composed of males
  3. Enhance the social sensitivity of the group
  4. Train members to do a better job at turn-taking in conversations

Recent research done by Anita Woolly and a team of colleagues suggests that the collective intelligence of a team has only a weak positive correlation with team members’ IQ level. This means that the first option will have very little impact on the group’s overall intelligence.

The other three factors all have a stronger effect on the collective intelligence of the team, as demonstrated in their success with a variety of cognitive tasks.

The most controversial of the findings of this research is probably the link between the number of women on a team and their collective intelligence. The likely mediating factor is social sensitivity – a factor that women tend to score higher on than men.

This research on what makes for collective intelligence in teams raises the interesting question of what leaders and organizations can to do raise the collective intelligence of teams. In a HBR interview about their research the researchers express the belief that is should be possible to markedly change a group’s collective intelligence – e.g., by incentives for collaboration.

Factor 3 and 4 listed above – enhancing social sensitivity and conversation behavior that supports collaborative thinking – are the classic “soft stuff” that technical people and hard-nosed business people still tend to scoff at.

However, these groups are also willing to believe the evidence of their own experience. Much of the work that I do with team leaders and teams is focused on enhancing social sensitivity and on developing conversation skills that support collaborative thinking.

Once teams notice the difference that enhanced competence in these areas make in their level of performance, they accept that they need to continue investing effort and energy into these areas if they want to excel.

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