The Character of Smart Teams

ARE SOME GROUPS, LIKE SOME PEOPLE, RELIABLY SMARTER THAN OTHERS?

Working with several colleagues and students, Anita Woolley, Thomas W. Malone, and Christopher F. Chabris, explain how they set out to answer this question in their recent NY Times op-ed piece. Here’s what they found:

TEAMS HAVE GENERAL INTELLIGENCE

Just as individual intelligence is defined by generality, teams too have a general intelligence.

On average, the groups that did well on one task did well on the others, too. In other words, some teams were simply smarter than others.

SMART TEAMS HAVE THREE KEY CHARACTERISTICS

  1. Members contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group
  2. Members scored higher on a test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.
  3. Teams with more women outperformed teams with more men.

Indeed, it appeared that it was not “diversity” (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered for a team’s intelligence, but simply having more women. This last effect, however, was partly explained by the fact that women, on average, were better at “mind-reading” than men.

THEY ARE CONSISTENTLY SMART, BOTH ONLINE AND OFFLINE

The most important finding of a smart team is that they still demonstrate collective intelligence and consistently work smarter than others — both online and off. In other words, these key ingredients of a smart team remained constant regardless of its mode of interaction: members who communicated a lot, participated equally, and possessed good emotion-reading skills.

“THEORY OF MIND”: THEY ARE GOOD AT EMOTION-READING, GOING BEYOND VISUAL CUES

Emotion-reading mattered just as much for the online teams whose members couldn’t see one another as for the teams that worked face-to-face. So what makes teams smart is not just their ability to read body language and facial cues. It is their more general ability, called “theory of mind” in this article, to connect to what other people are feeling, knowing, and believing.

Read the original op-ed piece in the NY Times here.

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