What Makes One Team Smarter than Another?

Part of Build Strong (and Well-Rounded) Teams

Doing risk-based work requires a special team. We cover recruiting tactics, training, compensation, recognition and continual improvement methods that drive results for the kind of work you do.

Part of Build Strong (and Well-Rounded) Teams

Doing risk-based work requires a special team. We cover recruiting tactics, training, compensation, recognition and continual improvement methods that drive results for the kind of work you do.

What Makes One Team Smarter than Another?
Article filed in Teams

Over the past few years, Anita Woolley and her colleagues from various universities have offered incredible insight into how groups work and think together. Their ideas can help risk management groups create stronger teams, leading to better outcomes and improved results. Come learn more before you build your next team.

As a general rule, people show very poor judgment regarding which teams will be successful and which ones will not.

Consider the popular 2004 movie, Miracle. The movie covered the journey of the US men’s 1980 winter Olympics hockey team. The team was made up largely of amateurs, and they were considered to be the underdogs. The Soviet team, on the other hand, was largely a professional group that many people favored to win. Despite a rocky start, the US team managed to achieve one of the biggest upsets in sports history by successfully winning the gold medal.

People may point to this example and label it a fluke, but similar situations can be found across a variety of situations, including politics and business. Various teams that people did not expect to excel, because their individual participants were not leaders in the field, accomplished great tasks.

When we witness this phenomenon, we are driven to wonder why this occurs. For some researchers, this curiosity inspired them to begin tests that now offer fascinating insight into group performance.

The answer lies in our tendency to focus on the skills of individual members and what they can accomplish on their own. The Soviet men’s hockey team was filled with highly skilled players, who could each dominate the ice independently. The ability of a group, however, is not the sum of its parts. This misconception can easily lead to businesses and other organizations making poor decisions about the groups they create, resulting in poorer outcomes than they might have otherwise seen.

The ability of individual members often does not correlate with the abilities of the group. Simply putting together a group of all-stars, regardless of whether you are forming a team to perform a risk assessment or you want to create a sports team, will not guarantee success. Instead, you need to look at the collective intelligence. The better you understand how team intelligence works, the easier it will be to create a more effective team.

What is collective intelligence?

When people consider the intelligence of a person, they look at a variety of factors. This includes their visual, spatial, verbal, and quantitative reasoning skills. This intelligence can then be described as ‘g’, and it does a good job of predicting how an individual will perform on future tasks.

When looking at a group, however, you want to look at more than the intelligence of the individuals. You also need to look at factors that will measure the ability of the group to perform tasks together. The collective intelligence of the group describes the ability of the team to understand and execute tasks together as a whole. The way ‘g’ serves as a strong predictor for the future abilities of individuals, this collective intelligence-- ‘c’-- will similarly predict the ability of the team on future tasks.

Professor Anita Woolley and her insight about group dynamics

Researchers have spent years studying individual intelligence and how well it correlates with people’s ability to perform tasks. Professor Anita Woolley and her colleagues wanted to know if the same idea could be found in groups. They wanted to see if they could devise a system to better understand how groups thought, their ability to perform tasks, and how well this correlated with the intelligence of the individual members.

For generations, many researchers and business leaders alike have thought that to design optimal groups, they needed to put together the highest performing members. Woolley’s research, however, challenges the core of these ideas.

Understanding Professor Anita Woolley’s Research


Building a basis for understanding collective intelligence

At the start of the research, Professor Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University and her team wanted to determine if they could accurately measure collective intelligence.

They did so by inviting a number of groups to take a variety of tests. They used this information to calculate a collective intelligence score for each of these groups. They were then able to use this score to accurately predict the ability of the group to perform on future tasks.

The collective intelligence score was a stronger indicator than the predictions offered based upon the intelligence of the smartest member of the group or the sum of the intelligence scores of each member of the group.

Understanding how the IQ of individuals impacted collective intelligence

To better understand how the IQ of individuals within a group impacts the collective intelligence of everyone together, Profession Woolley and her associates gathered subjects between the ages of 18 and 60. They administered standard intelligence tests to each participant. After the participants had finished this test, they were assigned randomly to a group.

Once the groups had been formed, they were given a series of tasks to complete. They had to accomplish a range of tasks, including brainstorming ideas, completing visual puzzles, making decisions, and solving a more complex problem. The groups were given a collective intelligence score based on their answers.

The researchers found that the IQ of the individual participants in the study mattered very little. Although there were some differences in the level of performance, it was not a significant gap. Instead, they found that the groups containing women did see boosts in their collective intelligence scores. They have also replicated these findings more than once.

The results the researchers uncovered


The impact of women

Women were found to have a dramatic impact on intelligence of the group. A group comprised of all men generally sat around the average mark. Interestingly, once just one woman was added, the group actually performed worse. As another woman was added, however, the group became average once again.

However, when the group became majority women, they began to consistently demonstrate higher- than- average intelligence scores. It is important to note, however, that this improvement did seem to flatten as the group approached all women.

Woolley posited that the success of the group fell with only one woman because when women feel alone in the group of men, they tend to not express their ideas as openly. This not only minimizes the potential impact of the woman, but it also lowers the success of the entire group.

As the women grow in number, they start to put their ideas to work more openly, which then improves the success of the group. Curiously, when the dynamic reverses: one man within a group of women, the man does not feel as inhibited as the sole woman did, creating an environment of actual gender diversity and leading to above- average performance.

This indicates a clear need for continued diversity to see the optimal results.

The importance of social perception

Many people will instinctively think that factors such as: the satisfaction of the group, the motivation of the group, or how well the group was able to connect with each other, will directly impact the collective intelligence. The idea that the individual IQs of those within the group will impact the intelligence of the group also remains a common misconception.

During Woolley’s study, none of these traits were found to correlate with higher team intelligence scores.

The idea that women help to make groups overall more intelligent intrigued Woolley and her associates. They wondered what it was about women that led to the improvements in the scores.

To answer this question, they also set out to study traits related to women’s social skills to better understand what caused their positive impact on the group dynamics.

The researchers found that women generally scored stronger on social sensitivity. To better quantify this trait, the researchers administered a task that asked people to look at pictures of faces, with only the eye region visible. The subject was asked to match terms describing how the person in the image felt based upon this limited view. Participants were given a score that measured this social perception.

This additional study found that people who score higher on social perceptiveness tests also seemed to contribute positively to the collective intelligence of the group, regardless of gender.

The results appeared to indicate that the better the ability of the participants to accurately use social perception, the easier it was for the group to solve problems, answer the questions, and achieve their goals, thus boosting the scores of the group. This explained why the introduction of women to the teams resulted in positive performance gains. Since women, across the population, demonstrate stronger social perception skills, including them in the group therefore boosted these skills among the members.

The value of collaboration

The research conducted by Woolley found that strong groups demonstrate good communication skills and open minds. The people within them participate in an equal flow of ideas.

Ensuring that the group remains free of domination by just one or two people also correlated with success. If a single person, such as the high IQ participant, took over the group, they would end up detracting from the success of everyone together.

This seemed to align with the phenomenon that we often see in nature. Bee colonies or ant colonies, for example, comprise of worker insects that cannot do much on their own. When they work together, however, the total is far greater than just the sum of the intelligence of the individual members. They can expertly build complex structures, find food, and build successful colonies.

Similarly, when teams interact with each other on equal footing, each giving the others opportunities to speak and express ideas, the group can work together and accomplish far more than they would have been able to do as individuals.

To keep groups from becoming too internally focused, maintaining cognitive diversity remains important. This helps to maintain an equal flow of communication and ideas.

Replication in the online world

Woolley and her associates were interested in better understanding how these group dynamics impacted collective intelligence. To gain a better picture, they decided to see how well the results would correspond with online groups, where people communicated largely through text chat.

Not only did this follow up demonstrate the same results regarding group dynamics, it also found that the importance of social perceptiveness remained consistent.

This was particularly interesting because in the online environment, group participants cannot see each other face to face. Instead, they rely on written messages. These messages generally do not communicate emotions as well as a person’s face or even their voice.

Even though the high social perceptiveness was discovered through the careful study of the participants’ ability to read expressions in human eyes, the quality incredibly carried over to the more anonymous environment of the online world. Even when communicating through a computer, the ability to better read social situations enhanced communication within the group, resulting in higher achievements.

How one member can bring down the group

Researchers have continued to look at the success of different groups and decided to also examine at how negative team members impact groups.

They found that people who score below average on social perceptiveness, for example, can also hinder the success of the group. When a particular group has been saddled with an individual who struggles with the traits that groups need to thrive: including communication, motivation, open mindedness, and an equal exchange of ideas, they could make it harder for the group to succeed. This indicates that groups can only be as strong as their weakest members.

How this research can be used to improve teams

This research on group collective intelligence and success can be applied to teams across a range of sizes, including families, companies, and even cities. Although it currently appears as though group intelligence does decline as groups grow larger, the potential for technology to reduce this impact exists.

Consider, for example, Google’s harvesting of knowledge or even Wikipedia. Both rely on the collective intelligence of large groups of people with high degrees of success. The future may find that technology allows groups to maintain their collective intelligence.

Key 1. Collective intelligence can grow (unlike IQ).

The body of current evidence suggests that the IQs of individuals can be positively impacted only in small amounts.

Through nurturing and quality education, people can achieve their maximum IQ potential, but the difference will remain limited to only a few points.

On a group level, however, the proper selection and nurturing of groups can have a greater impact on their collective intelligence and therefore, their success. By adjusting some of the members in groups, carefully evaluating how different people are paired, and offering sufficient motivation, brands can help the groups on their projects take large steps forward.

Key 2. Create egalitarian expectations

To begin, companies want to make sure they establish a team that centers around egalitarian expectations and equality.

Remember that the research found group dynamics suffered when teams became dominated by one person, or even a small group of people within the larger group. Establishing group dynamics that encourages more equal communication between all of the members improves the chances for success.

The group should ideally not contain ‘stars’ or those who just want to ‘be along for the ride’. It should comprise of people who will be capable of working towards producing the collaborative environment that nurtures the best work for the group.

Key 3. Understanding the future of strong leadership

The idea of egalitarian communication can be contrary to the expectations of many business leaders.

The previously accepted assumption was that successful groups need one strong, competent member who would direct the tasks and jobs of others within the group. Instead, however, group dynamics appear to see greater success without the this dominating leader, instead relying on the collective abilities of the group together.

Businesses should not automatically take this to mean that the importance of quality leadership at the head of organizations will decrease. It instead speaks to the rise of importance of other leadership traits. These traits include having a clear vision, inspiring work ethic, collaboration, and communication with others.

Key 4. Avoiding a negative dynamic

Similarly, you need to avoid people who will create a negative dynamic. In addition to the people who might try to be the ‘star’ of the group, and thus establish an unhealthy dominance over the team, you also want to avoid having anyone who brings a negative presence to the group. Those who scored very low on social perceptiveness can hinder the success of the wider group.

Key 5. Balance perspectives

Be sure not to overlook the contributions of the women within the organization. Remember that the smarter teams were actually comprised of a majority of women, likely because of their higher social perceptiveness.

Look for people who demonstrates their skills in collaboration to build a more successful group. Include women when possible to bolster the gender diversity of the team and increase chances of success.

The value of these insights for the risk management field

Building teams for risk management requires bringing together people who will be able to look creatively at company activities and identify potential risks, quantify them, and determine their recommendations that will benefit the business. This type of work requires professionals who can not only look at the concrete data in front of them, but also who can think creatively about potential puzzles and tasks so that they can effectively come up with solutions.

A successful risk management team will help organizations minimize the potential for loss while also pointing them towards potential avenues for success. They will be able to develop strategies that will help the organization better navigate potential areas for risk.

Building a strong team, based upon the research by Anita Woolley, should include:

  • Seeking team members who have demonstrated strong collaboration skills
  • Working with women in the field and adding them to the team as often as possible
  • Focusing less on the individual IQs of the team members, but instead remembering that the collective IQ will be more indicative of future success
  • Setting up performance and procedural guidelines that focus on equal contribution instead of dominance by a single person or small group of people
  • Avoiding team members that have demonstrated a tendency to try and dominate conversations, meetings, and ideas or who otherwise bring a negative disposition to the table

Creating teams based around these principles should result in higher collective intelligence for your risk management group, which will in turn improve the success of their initiatives and projects.

In summary

Researchers continue to look for ways to better understand how people work together in a variety of environments, including businesses and other organizations. Although they have long examined ways to measure the intelligence of individuals and how it correlates to that person’s outcomes, the research about how organizations work together has only recently begun to emerge, disrupting many long-held assumptions.

Anita Woolley and her colleagues from multiple universities have sought to better understand group dynamics and how the individuals impact the collective team intelligence.

Through their measurements of group intelligence and achievements, they have uncovered the astounding insight that creating a team simply comprised of the smartest people in the room is far from a guarantee that you will have the most effective team.

Group success correlates far stronger with the social perception skills of the team members and their ability to create an atmosphere of equal collaboration. The inclusion of women also led to improved collective intelligence and performance, as women’s ideas and generally higher skills in social awareness raise the abilities of the group beyond the sum of the parts.

As you and your risk assessment company work to build and nurture successful teams to accomplish your tasks, keeping these data points in mind will be to your advantage. The stronger the teams you create, the more success the groups will achieve in their tackling of risk management challenges. This will create stronger businesses, paving the way for growth and profit.

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