Building an Intelligent Team

By Ryan W. Quinn

Last year, at about this time, I posted a blog entry on winning as a team. The Boston Celtics were on tear, winning playoff game after playoff game, when everyone had predicted that they were too old to win anymore.

This year is looking less promising than last year, so unfortunately, I cannot use my Celtics as an example (although some other teams, like the Memphis Grizzlies, are doing some pretty amazing things). It turns out, however, that I can share some research on teams that is pretty amazing.

The research was conducted by Anita Williams Wooley and her colleagues, and was published in the journal, Science. In the article, Wooley and her colleagues find that the idea of generalized intelligence can be applied to teams as well. The idea of generalized intelligence is this: people who do well on one mental task tend to do well on others as well–across a wide range of content and methods of administration. This finding has been replicated across people and tasks for over 100 years.

What Wooley and her colleagues do that is new, however, is show us that this same finding is true for groups. Groups that perform well at one interdependent task tend to perform well at other tasks, across different content or methods of delivery, as well. Teams tend to develop a collective intelligence that carries over with the team from activity to activity.

So what makes a team intelligent? Individual intelligence plays a role, but a pretty small role. Similarly, group cohesion, motivation, and satisfaction had no impact at all. The three biggest impacts on collective intelligence were:

  1. Social sensitivity – The more people pay attention to and care about the feelings of others, the more intelligent the groups were.
  2. Turn taking – Groups in which one or two people dominate the conversation are not as intelligent as groups in which turn-taking is relatively evenly distributed.
  3. Gender – The more females there were in the group, the more intelligent the groups were. (This finding, however, is largely mediated by social sensitivity. Women tend to be more socially sensitive then men. If men in the group are more socially sensitive, the impact of number of women in the group decreases.)

What are the implications of these findings for the groups in your organization? How do they suggest you should design and manage groups differently? Please share with us any insights you have from these findings in the comments below.