Very few of us work as individuals. For the most part we work as a part of formal or informal teams, with team members often changing based upon the particular task or project. Have you ever noticed that some teams work better than others? That some teams seem to solve problems more quickly and get more done? Have you ever asked yourself why? In a fascinating study published several years ago, Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University and her research team (here) measured something called “collective intelligence” to explain why some teams outperform others.
We are all familiar with the notion of individual intelligence. We know just from casual observation that some students outperform other students. Cognitive scientists call this general intelligence factor g. What’s interesting about general intelligence is that it applies across disciplines and accounts for about 30 to 50% of the variance in academic performance. Or put in simple terms: Students who do well in one subject tend to do well in all subjects.
What about work groups? Do they have a group or “collective intelligence?” It turns out that they do. Woolley and her colleagues gave a series of tasks to solve to several groups and found that some groups routinely outperform others.
Why? The first thought is that it depends on the individual intelligence of the group members. They found that collective intelligence is actually only moderately correlated with average individual intelligence. So what makes for “collectively intelligent” groups? Three factors:
- Groups that were dominated by one or two individuals (I’ll bet you’ve never encountered that phenomenon) had LOWER collective intelligence. Groups that shared problem solving equally had HIGHER collective intelligence.
- Groups in which individual group members scored high on tests of social intelligence outperformed other groups. Presumably the individual members were better able to “read” the intent of and mutually cooperate with their co-group members.
- Groups with MORE female members outperformed other groups. This is likely related to factor two: Women tend to score higher on tests of social intelligence.
So, take all this into account the next time you put together a work team.