This is an edited extract from The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes. Iceland should never have made it to the Euro 2016 men’s football tournament. Four years previously, they were ranked 131st in the world.
Since they published that ﬁrst paper in Science in 2010, Woolley’s team has veriﬁed their test in many diﬀerent contexts, showing that it can predict the success of many real-world projects. They studied students completing a two-month group project in a university management course, for instance. Sure enough, the collective intelligence score predicted the team’s performance on various assignments. Intriguingly, teams with a higher collective intelligence kept on building on their advantage during this project: not only were they better initially; they also improved the most over the eight weeks.
The test is much more than a diagnostic tool, however. It has also allowed Woolley to investigate the underlying reasons why some teams have higher or lower collective intelligence – and the ways those dynamics might be improved.
One of the most consistent predictors is the team members’ social sensitivity. To measure this quality, Woolley used a classic measure of emotional perception, in which participants are given photos of an actor’s eyes and asked to determine what emotion that person is supposed to be feeling, with the participants’ average score strongly predicting how well they would perform on the group tasks.
Woolley’s team measured how often each member spoke, they found that the better groups tend to allow each member to participate equally; the worst groups, in contrast, tended to be dominated by just one or two people.
The most destructive dynamic, Woolley has found, is when team members start competing against each other. This was the problem with the ﬁnancial services company and their broader corporate culture. Each year, the company would only promote a ﬁxed number of individuals based on their performance reviews – meaning that each employee would feel threatened by the others, and group work suﬀered as a result.
The higher up the company you go, the greater the level of conﬂict reported by the employees.
Crucially, this seemed to depend on the members’ own understanding of their positions in the pecking order. If the team as a whole agreed on their relative positions, they were more productive, since they avoided constant jockeying for authority. The worst groups were composed of high-status individuals who didn’t know their rank in the pecking order.
All this research provides a couple of tips that could be applied to any team to improve performance. The first is in hiring: look for people with that social sensitivity rather than simply employing the person with the best individual performance. For the group as a whole, it may turn out to be far more valuable – particularly if you already have lots of high-flying members.
The second is to ensure that the leader displays the kinds of behaviours they expect within the team. Various studies have found that traits like humility can be contagious. If the leader is willing to listen to others more constructively, rather than dominating the conversation, and admit his or her mistakes, the team as a whole can begin to nurture those dynamics that increase the overall collective intelligence.