Collective intelligence: building smart teams

Posted on July 10, 2014. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at what is central to human motivation and how we can tap into it to build smart teams that perform.




Getting ‘social’ right

Sociologists and economists have long studied human capital as a driver of productivity in organisations, something they define as the amount of intelligence, experience, and education a person has. Traditionally, the reward for an individual possessing high levels of human capital has been an equally high salary. In the past twenty years or so, this has been shown to be ineffective  – even counterproductive.

Researchers have struggled to explain why. Charles M. Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, and Craig K. Ferrere, one of its Edgar S. Woolard fellows have studied CEO salaries and conclude that, contrary to the prevailing line, that chief executives can’t readily transfer their skills from one company to another. In other words, the argument that CEOs will leave if they aren’t compensated well, perhaps even lavishly, is bogus.

Dan Ariely, from the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience and the Department of Economics at Duke University, has participated in numerous studies relating to the complexities of human behaviour, the conclusions of which he explains in his book The Upside of Irrationality. Overwhelmingly, Ariely’s research has confirmed that, for tasks that require cognitive ability, low to moderate performance-based incentives can help. But when the incentive level is very high, it can command too much attention and thereby distract the person’s mind with thoughts about the reward. This can create stress and ultimately reduce the level of performance.

Why should this counter-intuitive outcome be the case?  Enter Matthew Lieberman, Professor and SCN Lab Director at the UCLA Department of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences. Based on a decade of research in social neuroscience (how our brains respond to social engagement, in other words), he concludes that our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental than our need for food and shelter.

Lieberman argues that our success as a species and one of the reasons we’ve evolved large brains in the first place is because of our need for social connection. We are motivated by something beyond self-interest: the drive for social connection. Lieberman concludes that the adaptive value of brain systems is that it give us insights into others. These include not just the social cognition network but a network for ‘mentalising’ (intuiting what others are thinking), another for ‘harmonising’ (using self-control to keep from alienating others) and so on. Relationships are a central part of a flourishing life and working collaboratively is at the centre of human activity.

“Given what we know about the social brain, creating the right social environment in our workplaces should be a top priority for anyone who wants the best out of themselves and those around them,” says Lieberman. “Yet most organisations don’t get ‘social’ right.”

Towards a new theory of group performance

28290bc95af9907a474cefd3d0bf4090Thomas W. Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence,  is one of the leading thinkers in how to tap into the collective intelligence of groups.The centre’s ambition is to  bringing together insights from social psychology, computer science, group dynamics, social media, crowdsourcing, and the centre’s own experiments in group behavior. The results could help business teams get ‘social’ right and thereby develop a new theory of group performance.

According to Malone, the critical factor appears to be social perception.  In general, social perceptiveness is described as having an understanding of other’s verbal and non-verbal behaviour and actions. This can include having to interpret a combination of what they are saying as well as their tone of voice, body language, gestures, and facial expressions. Being socially perceptive is important in all social settings, but – because so much is often at stake  – especially the workplace.

Some people may not be aware of their lack of social perceptiveness and how it potentially impacts on relationships and interactions with others at work. For example, they may not be able to recognise when a co-worker is stressed and may ask for assistance at a bad time. Women, in general, are more socially perceptive than men. Simply adding women to a team can dramatically improve team cohesion and productivity.

Anita Woolley, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University, concurs:

What do you hear about great groups? Not that the members are all really smart but that they listen to each other. They share criticism constructively. They have open minds. They’re not autocratic. And in our study we saw pretty clearly that groups that had smart people dominating the conversation were not very intelligent groups. 

Woolley looked at the collective intelligence scores of 192 teams against the percentage of women on those teams. Teams with a higher percentage of women were found to be more effective and productive than teams with a higher percentage of men. This fact may be what’s behind the thinking of the Australian federal government’s push to get more women on boards by tripling funding to a scholarship program for top-performing corporate women.

It’s difficult to know if strong teams naturally result in a higher collective intelligence or if building the elements of a high collective intelligence lead to strong teams. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. The good news for leaders is that because we are driven by a desire to connect, social perceptiveness can be easily learned and practiced. Building it into how teams function can have dramatic results on team harmony and overall productivity.



Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest passion.




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8 Responses to “Collective intelligence: building smart teams”

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[…] Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at what is central to human motivation and how we can tap into it to build smart teams that perform. ______________________________________…  […]

I have a predominance (overwhelming) of women in my teams and they produce exceptional results. It can take a little lomger to achieve flow in the group dynamic but we have tools to speed up the understanding of each other.
Great article.
Chris Phillips
Manager People & Performance
Gladstone Regional Council

Thanks for your comment. We would welcome your thoughts and experience in a future post if you’re interested! Adair

Thanks Adair I am working on an idea at the moment to run by you for a post.

Looking forward!

[…] “ Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at what is central to human motivation and how we can tap into it to build smart teams that perform. ______________________________________…”  […]

[…] Thomas W. Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, is one of the leading thinkers in how to tap into the collective intelligence of groups.The centre's ambition is to bringing together insights from social …  […]

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