21 Jan

the smartest teams were
distinguished by three

First, their members contributed more
equally to the team’s
discussions, rather than letting one or
two people dominate the

Second, their members scored higher
on a test called Reading the
Mind in the Eyes, which measures how
well people can read complex
emotional states from images of faces
with only the eyes visible.

Finally, teams with more women
outperformed teams with more men.
Indeed, it appeared that it was not
“diversity” (having equal
numbers of men and women) that
mattered for a team’s intelligence,
but simply having more women. This
last effect, however, was partly
explained by the fact that women, on
average, were better at
“mindreading” than men.

In a new study that we published with
David Engel and Lisa X. Jing
of M.I.T. last month in PLoS One, we
replicated these earlier
findings, but with a twist. We randomly
assigned each of 68 teams to
complete our collective intelligence test
in one of two conditions.
Half of the teams worked face to face,
like the teams in our earlier
studies. The other half worked online,
with no ability to see any of
their teammates. Online collaboration is
on the rise, with tools
like Skype, Google Drive and old-fashioned email enabling groups
that never meet to execute complex
projects. We wanted to see
whether groups that worked online
would still demonstrate collective
intelligence, and whether social ability
would matter as much when
people communicated purely by typing
messages into a browser.

And they did. Online and off, some
teams consistently worked smarter
than others. More surprisingly, the most
important ingredients for a
smart team remained constant
regardless of its mode of interaction:
members who communicated a lot,
participated equally and possessed
good emotion-reading skills.

This last finding was another surprise.
Emotion-reading mattered
just as much for the online teams
whose members could not see one
another as for the teams that worked
face to face. What makes teams
smart must be not just the ability to
read facial expressions, but a
more general ability, known as “Theory
of Mind,” to consider and
keep track of what other people feel,
know and believe.

A new science of effective teamwork is
vital not only because teams
do so many important things in society,
but also because so many
teams operate over long periods of
time, confronting an
ever-widening array of tasks and
problems that may be much different
from the ones they were initially
convened to solve. General
intelligence, whether in individuals or
teams, is especially crucial
for explaining who will do best in novel
situations or ones that
require learning and adaptation to
changing circumstances. We hope
that understanding what makes groups
smart will help organizations
and leaders in all fields create and
manage teams more effectively.


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