Kentaro Toyama, Ph.D.

Geek Heretic

The Key to a Strong Team

Research reveals the one quality that best predicts team performance.

Posted Oct 15, 2018

Most of us engage in some kind of teamwork, whether it’s for projects at the office, coordinating a community event, or organizing a birthday party. But, what makes for an effective team?

I’ve given a lot of thought to this problem and read much of the research literature on teamwork, because every autumn, I teach a course for about 250 master’s students grouped into 60 or so teams. Each team is assigned to work with a real-world client who has an information-related challenge: a problem with information flow, difficulty with document management, an issue with internal communication. Good teamwork, of course, is an essential skill for the students to learn—to do well in the course, to satisfy their clients, to complete their degree, and to succeed in their careers. But, the class is not primarily about teamwork—the students’ core interest is information science—so early in the course, I cram in the best, practical, evidence-based advice for teams that I’m aware of.

And that advice is: Communicate with one other, and ensure that every team member participates in discussion. Individual members of any team can help the team do better overall. If you tend to be quiet, try to speak up more; if you tend to be vocal, hold yourself back a bit, and invite input from other teammates.

Research on teamwork goes back decades in organizational psychology, even before a landmark 1965 paper by Bruce Tuckman whose rhymed labels for the four stages of team evolution—forming, storming, norming, and performing—are a staple of management training workshops. (My students read that paper so that they’re neither too surprised nor overly concerned when their teams experience “storming”—conflicts and misunderstandings that many teams experience early on before they figure out how to work best with each other)

But, it was only in 2010 that researchers identified a single quality of teams that contributes—possibly more so than any other quality—to good team function. Woolley et al. (2010), had teams of two to five people perform a series of team tasks ranging from the kinds of questions asked in IQ tests to more complex tasks like designing a house with blocks while meeting building codes. The participants also took established tests of intelligence, personality, and social sensitivity, and scored how they felt about their teams. Finally, audio recordings of the teams were analyzed to determine how much each team member spoke. Factor analysis was performed to identify what most correlated with team performance on the tasks.

I should mention that “social sensitivity”—the ability to understand others’ thoughts and feelings—was measured by a curious assessment tool known as “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” (RME). This instrument was developed by psychologists Baron-Cohen et al. (2001) as a way to evaluate people on the autism spectrum, who are known to have difficulty reading others’ emotions. The test presents subjects with black-and-white cropped photographs of people’s eyes and asks them to choose the emotion expressed in them from among multiple choice options. (The test is made available by the New York Times for anyone to try.)

Of the variables they looked at, Woolley et al. found that three things best predicted a team’s performance: its average social sensitivity score (as measured by the RME test), the proportion of women on the team, and the degree to which each team member’s voice was heard in discussion. These three factors are closely related and probably have a lot to do with a team’s average ability to read one another’s mental states. It turns out that the women's advantage is largely explained by their superior social sensitivity. And, it seems reasonable that higher social sensitivity might lead to teams with more balanced discussion, as more active members sense their quieter peers’ reservation and explicitly seek their input.

What happens, though, when teams interact virtually, as real-world teams increasingly do? This is where the story becomes really interesting. To investigate this, three co-authors of the original Woolley et al. paper collaborated on a follow up study with some other colleagues. Engel et al. (2014) repeat the experiment but with a twist; instead of having teams work in a face-to-face environment, the teams performed their tasks entirely online, through a text-chat mediated interface. Their results largely confirm the results from Woolley et al. They find that among the traits they measured, a team’s average RME scores correlate most with overall team performance. What's striking, though, is that a test that depends on looking at images of people’s eyes somehow predicts team performance even when team members can’t see one another.

How can this be? Engel et al. write, “This suggests that scores on the RME test must be correlated with a broader set of [social sensitivity] abilities and that these broader abilities are critical to group performance even when the subtle nonverbal cues available face-to-face… are not available.” It seems likely that people with high social sensitivity have a deeper set of habits—being observant about emotional cues; putting oneself in another person's shoes; reading between the lines in any form of communication—that manifests as the ability to read emotions in the eyes, as well as perhaps to know the difference between "fine" and "fine!" in a text chat. Luckily, social sensitivity can be improved, and its lessons easily applied to teams: Communicate more with each other, and make sure everyone’s voice is heard.