Many Heads Can Be Better Than One, If They Belong to Women

Why teams are smarter and more effective when they include women.

Posted Apr 07, 2011

In the modern workplace, almost all work of real consequence is carried about by small teams.   But even when very smart, very talented people are assigned to work together on a project, it's clear that the resulting team can be a complete disaster.   Sometimes it seems like teamwork can turn otherwise competent people into childish morons.  Would we be better off relying less on teams, and more on individuals going at it alone?

Not necessarily.  Teams can be smarter and more effective than the individuals who make up the team - the whole can indeed be bigger and better than just the sum of its parts, but only under the right circumstances. 

A recent study conducted by researchers at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College shows that the collective intelligence of a small group working together uniquely predicts their performance across a wide variety of tasks.  In the study, nearly 700 people were placed in groups of 2 to 5, and their ability to solve problems as a team was found to strongly predict their subsequent success on tasks as diverse as visual puzzles, games, negotiations, and logical analysis. 

The average intelligence of members (measured individually, rather than as a group) did not predict team performance at all, and that's really important. In other words, simply having a couple of really smart people in the group didn't necessarily make the group itself any smarter.

It turns out that the collective intelligence of the team will only meet or exceed its individual potential if the right kind of internal dynamics are in place.  The researchers found that what is needed for a group to be "smart" is effective coordination and communication, and that this is most likely to be the present in groups with members who were more socially sensitive

When groups contained people who were particularly skilled when it comes to perceiving and responding to others' emotions, they demonstrated greater collective intelligence, and superior performance again and again.  Not surprisingly, groups where one person dominated in conversation and decision-making were collectively less intelligent, and less effective.

So, how can you ensure that your team will be socially sensitive?  The answer is simple: Add more women.  Teams in the study that contained more women were significantly more socially sensitive, and consequently more intelligent, than the male-dominated teams.

If you don't have the power to change the gender makeup of your teams, fear not.  Their collective intelligence can still develop and improve - through better, more sensitive means of working together, or better collaboration tools.  Create opportunities for team members to express their feelings, and for others to respond to them.   Encourage face-time whenever possible (emotions are difficult to read on the phone, and nearly impossible over email).  Cultivating a work environment  where team members experiences are acknowledged and understood will create teams that are smarter, happier, and far more successful. 

To learn some surprising, but incredibly effective ways to reach your goals, check out my new book Succeed.  Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson, or visit my website