What Makes Teams Smart

What makes some groups perform better than others?

A new study published in Science  found that three factors were significantly correlated with a group’s collective intelligence — in other words, its ability to perform a variety of tasks collectively, from solving puzzles to negotiating.

The three factors are: the average social sensitivity of the members of the group, the extent to which the group’s conversations weren’t dominated by a few members, and the percentage of women in the group.  (The women in the study tended to score higher on social sensitivity than the men.) In other words, groups perform better on tasks if the members have strong social skills, if there are some women in the group, and if the conversation reflects more group members’ ideas. The groups studied were small teams with two to five members.

Thomas W. Malone, MIT Sloan School

Thomas W. Malone, MIT Sloan School

The study was conducted by Anita Williams Woolley of Carnegie-Mellon, Christopher F. Chabris of Union College, and Alexander Pentland, Nada Hashmi and Thomas W. Malone, all of MIT.

Interestingly, the researchers found that collective intelligence wasn’t strongly correlated with the average intelligence of the  individuals in the group — or with the intelligence of the smartest person in the group. They also found, as they wrote in Science,  ”that many of the factors one might have expected to predict group performance — such as group cohesion, motivation, and satisfaction — did not.”

For more on Thomas W. Malone’s ideas about collective intelligence, see MIT Sloan Management Review’s Spring 2010 interview with Malone.

11 Comments On: What Makes Teams Smart

  • theo | October 28, 2010

    this and the science summary does not mention
    what kind of teams were used.
    - real teams or ad hoc teams made for experiment
    what kind of people? I think we know by now that results obtained with white middle class american students shoudl be taken with a grain of salt

  • Phil Friedrich Take Charge Consultants | October 28, 2010

    Interesting to see yet another example of the value of Emotional Intelligence.

  • Sav - Coach | October 28, 2010

    I’ve seen this heaps in the teams I’ve coaches and training. Social skills training is what seems to make the biggest difference, creating a same side mentality and a safe environment for innovation.

  • Anubis Rezende | October 29, 2010

    Of course this is a brief summary. Some points: social skills are strongly determined and impacted by country/region culture and habits. Conversation domination is somewhat a result of personal preferences and characteristics (Psyc Type f.ex.). And having women in the group depends on industry, HR policies and local culture. Reflections: Many variables are out of control. But let’s take a closer look.

  • David Hegedus | October 29, 2010

    Theo makes a crucial distinction between ad hoc groups and existing work groups. Research on ad hoc groups by me & others in the 1980s showed all 3 of these factors determined performance. Furthermore, our research showed that organizations can improve performance by either using structured group discussion methods such as the Nominal group technique OR invest in problem-solving and social interaction training. Either works.

  • John Barr | October 30, 2010

    Newly released neuro research has added another condition, conatation. Research by Kathy Kolbe has demonstrated the need for teams to have the right conative talents (instincts – natural abilities). Read more about the research at http://www.kolbe.com

  • Derek White | November 5, 2010

    I would be interested to know the correlation to the EQ of the member with highest IQ (or the IQ of the member with the highest EQ.)

    In my practical experience, one or two people with high EQ (and at least moderate IQ) can get the most out of the team (get the best ideas without demotivating anyone, building buy-in, etc.)

  • Susan Wood | November 17, 2010

    All great teams have great LEADERS, who in my opinion are few and far between in most companies or firms. Teams fail because they dont have TRUE LEADERS who possess interpersonal, social intelligance, and emotional intelligence and the passion to want the team to achieve – skills! No leader, no team!

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