Friday, January 23, 2015

The secret to successful groups is diversity

We've all seen the phenomenon that a group of people is usually dumber than the IQ of any one person in the group. And we've also watched groups come together to outperform their peers, somehow collectively enhancing the group dynamic to become a truly "smart" team. And through the years, you've probably read countless business articles that claim to have the "secret" to highly performing teams.

Here's another one. Researchers from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College recently wrote about group dynamics, that just as some individuals are smarter than others, some groups are smarter than others, across a range of tests and tasks. In other words, there is a "c factor" for collective intelligence. The big reveal:
In two studies with 699 people, working in groups of two to five, we find converging evidence of a general collective intelligence factor that explains a group’s performance on a wide variety of tasks. This “c factor” is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.

In other words, The Secret to Smart Groups: It's Women, as described in a recent article in The Atlantic. The single most important element of smart groups, according to the researchers, was their "average social sensitivity." Essentially, their receptivity to nonverbal communication and cues, which The Atlantic refers to as "mind-reading." Quoting The Atlantic:
Women are better at reading the mind through the face even online, when they can't see their teammates' faces. In a follow-up study (the full paper, which again isn't linked in the Times piece, lives here), the scientists gave participants a "Reading the Mind in the Eyes," or RME, test, where they were asked to identify complex emotions (e.g., shame or curiosity, rather than sadness or joy) in pictures of other people's eyes. Then they divided participants into teams and had them perform a number of tests, like brainstorming and group Sudoku. Again, teams with more women, who scored higher on the RME test, performed the best across the tasks. From the paper:

The [RME] scores of group members were a strong predictor of how well the groups could perform a wide range of tasks together, even when participants were only collaborating online via text chat and could not see each other’s eyes or facial expressions at all.

This doesn't mean that only women are good at social sensitivity, or nonverbal communication. But rather, women tend to be better at it.

The obvious takeaway to encourage diversity. I used to advise ΑΣΚ sorority, "women in technical studies," so this is a topic that is very close to me. I believe that women are often underrepresented in technology, an unfortunate trend that we must reverse.

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