Building smart teams


Success and failure are often separated by teams that work well together and teams that don’t, yet building a team has often been considered a soft science. An activity that great leaders could be intuitively better at, but that people screw up on more often than not.

But professors Anita Woolley, Thomas Malone, and Christopher Chabris have conducted (and published) some research that shows there are some reliable links between how you construct a team and how it performs:

The smartest teams were distinguished by three characteristics.

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

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.

They followed this study up with some additional research that shows this dynamic applies to teams that work remotely as well as teams that work in person.

I remember learning about Theory of Mind in introductory psychology class in college:

Theory of mind (often abbreviated ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.

Which of course is not quite right — we are looking for people who have empathy, which is something you develop to a greater or lesser degree based on your theory of mind and your life experience.

Another interesting twist is that team smartness was not correlated with how intelligent the team members were:

We gave each volunteer an individual I.Q. test, but teams with higher average I.Q.s didn’t score much higher on our collective intelligence tasks than did teams with lower average I.Q.s. Nor did teams with more extroverted people, or teams whose members reported feeling more motivated to contribute to their group’s success.

In other words, if you want to build a team that can dent the universe, pick people who have a lot of empathy, and if you lack a better barometer for it, pick women.