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Is your team intelligent?

By IMD Research Fellow Dr. Karsten Jonsen - June 2011

Teams have intelligence just like individual people do. But the intelligence factor of human groups is not simply the average of its members, in fact that has only little to do with it. Researchers have now found a way to measure team IQ and what it takes to achieve it.[1] It’s not rocket science, and to achieve it is even free of charge. Now, how’s that for good business sense?

What is team intelligence?

As individuals, intelligence defines our capacity for abstract thinking, reasoning, learning, planning and rapid problem solving. In essence, it characterizes our ability to deal with cognitive complexity,[2] an indispensable quality for today’s global managers. Insofar as it applies to teams, intelligence describes the ability of a group of individuals to tackle and manage complex and non-routine situations together. Intelligent teams can outperform their most knowledgeable members.

How to get a high Team IQ?

It is well known that for teams to function and perform to the best of their ability, they must focus on structure, processes, leadership and the right organizational support and context.[3]

What research now indicates, however, is that collective intelligence in teams can lead to higher performance. We have evidence that speaking in turns by group members, the proportion of females on a team and especially social sensitivity are all elements that lead to higher team intelligence. Let us take a closer look at each of these elements.

Speaking in turns isn't as simple as it sounds. Research shows that people in power, especially men, speak more and interrupt more. Thus, in teams that have little psychological safety or where the manager does not encourage everyone to share their thoughts or ideas, the dominant few will monopolize the conversation, thus jeopardizing the intelligence and ultimately the performance of the team.

When it comes to the proportion of females in teams, we know from token-theory that it takes a minimum of 20-30% of any given minority to change the dynamics of how a group works. Women use, at least to some degree, different working and communication styles, which are often more social and communal. With more women in the team, the collective IQ increases – not necessarily because women are smarter (although, some may be) but rather because of the different processes they instigate and nurture.

The third element, social sensitivity, is perhaps the most important of all. It is also correlated with the number of women in a team, due to the fact that women, on average, use it more. Simply put, social sensitivity is the ability to decode nonverbal cues and read the emotions of others - something that people who are empathetic[4] typically do well; this could be for example, recognizing a facial expression saying “I don’t agree with this” and reacting upon it.

What can you do as a manager?

As a team leader all the basic rules of team leadership, including creating a compelling vision and an environment of trust, are still true. What you need to add to this “toolbox” of leadership skills, if you wish for team intelligence to flourish, is the following:

a) Make sure the composition of your team is gender diverse. In any case, diverse teams have the potential to outperform homogeneous teams when managed well, especially when the task required is complex and non-routine.

b) Create an environment where people speak their minds (with reasonable limits of course) and participate actively in discussions and meetings. You can facilitate this by prompting people to “speak in turns” and restraining the most dominant forces. Be constantly aware of the signals and non-verbal cues people are giving. Silence is a classic “tool” that we often dislike in Western cultures. A few seconds of silence can be a tacit invitation for [some] people of Asian origin to proactively contribute.

c) Practice social sensitivity and empathy. Although they may not come naturally to everyone, we can all learn to increase our level of sensitivity by making it a dedicated leadership objective, sometimes aided by training and coaching.

Is this more difficult in virtual teams?

Many people work in virtual settings today, so it is worthwhile to consider how these recommendations influence team intelligence when team members are scattered in different locations.

There are reasons to believe that team IQ may fare better or equally well in virtual settings. Depending on the richness of the media used for virtual meetings and other communication within the team, body language and facial expressions are, of course, harder to read, and social sensitivity requires more intuition. However, speaking in turns becomes easier when physical appearances matter less, and people tend to express their opinions more freely online than in face-to-face settings. Because status cues are less visible, merit often trumps charisma in a virtual setting. An imposing physical appearance or a ‘charming personality’ may allow one individual to dominate a face-to-face meeting, but in a virtual setting these qualities are somewhat neutralized, thus allowing participants to flourish on the basis of the accomplishments and skills that they bring to the team. [5]

With the above in mind, your team can increase its collective intelligence and, hopefully, take advantage of the complex challenges of globalization. We see that far too often the potential of diverse teams is not reached. Team processes and culture hold the key to success. At the end of the day, it is all about identifying competencies to embrace differences rather than merely tolerating them.

Karsten Jonsen is a Research Fellow at IMD.

[1] Woolley, A.W. et al. (2010). Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science (330) October.

[2] Gottfredson, L. (1998). The General Intelligence Factor. Scientific American Presents 9 (4): 24–29

[3] See for example, J. Hackman’s:

[4] Women are more empathetic than men, on average. See Baron-Cohen, S. (2003). The Essential Difference, Penguin Books

[5] For more details on how to manage virtual teams, see chapter by Jonsen, Maznevski & Davison (forthcoming) to appear in to appear in the Handbook of Research in International Human Resource Management (2nd ed.) Edward Elgar Publications

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