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English psychologist Charles Spearman did pioneering research on human intelligence in the early 1900s, finding a strong correlation between children’s performance in unrelated school subjects. He suggested this was linked to “general mental ability,” which he called the g factor. This is so highly correlated with IQ test results that IQ and g are interchangeable. The g factor accounts for 40 to 50 percent of an individual’s performance in cognitive tests.
Experiments have shown that the collective performance of a group is only moderately correlated with the intelligence of the group’s members. Something else is going on. Professor Thomas W. Malone founded the Center for Collective Intelligence (CIC) at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 2006 to explore group intelligence and find a way to measure it.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and MIT gave a range of tasks to 700 people in groups of two to five, and measured group performance. The tasks were based on the McGrath Task Complex. They included visual puzzles, brainstorming, making collective moral judgments, and negotiating over limited resources.
“There was a single statistical factor that predicted how well a group performed,” Malone said in an interview with Strategy + Business (Summer 2014). “This factor accounts for about 30 to 50 percent of the variance in the group’s performance on different tasks, just as the g factor did for individual intelligence.” The research team called this the c factor, using ‘c’ to signify collective intelligence.
Four things accounted for a group’s collective intelligence. The average and highest intelligence of the team members was one of them, but the relationship was not very strong. The other three were:
- the average social perceptiveness of group members;
- the equality of contribution; and
- the ratio of men to women in the group.
Results were similar in later research conducted by David Engel and others, described in “Reading the Mind in the Eyes or Reading between the Lines? Theory of Mind Predicts Collective Intelligence Equally Well.” (PLoS One, 2014) This confirmed the role of social sensitivity and the proportion of female participation in a group.
Both research teams measured social perceptiveness using a test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” (RME). Shown pictures of other people’s eyes, subjects are asked to guess what emotion the person in the picture is feeling. This is a diagnostic test for autism. Thomas Malone says the test “is actually measuring a broad range of interpersonal skills. Psychologists call these broader skills theory of mind. The term refers to the ability, which is more developed in some people than others, to create a mental theory about what’s inside other people’s brains.”
David Engel and his research team found RME results predicted the level of social perceptiveness of participants in online groups as well, suggesting the test measures an individual’s sensitivity to non-visual as well as visual cues. Social perceptiveness was the only factor that correlated with collective intelligence at a level that was statistically significant.
Equality of Contribution
In the Carnegie Mellon and MIT research, equality of contribution was assessed as the extent to which group members participated equally. This was measured as the degree of conversational turn-taking. “When one or two people dominated the conversation,” Malone says, “the group on average was less intelligent.”
The Ratio of Women to Men
One of the more surprising results was that the higher the ratio of women to men, the better the group performed. This may be because women score higher than men on the test of social perceptiveness. “We haven’t yet done the research we need to do to explore this finding with more precision,” Thomas Malone says. “But in our results so far, the groups with half men and half women had some of the lowest scores. And it appears as if the highest scores go to groups composed mostly of women, with just a few men.”
Improving Group Performance
Do these research results point to ways to improve group performance?
“Individual intelligence is very difficult to change,” Thomas Malone says. You can predict people’s behavior by measuring their intelligence, but it’s usually hard to increase an individual’s intelligence. With groups, however, it seems quite possible that we could change their collective intelligence. At the minimum, you could imagine changing the intelligence of a group by changing some or maybe even all of the people in it – replacing them with people with higher levels of social intelligence, for instance.”
This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on complexity, collaboration, and the challenges of transformative change. It was first posted on March 27, 2018, on LinkedIn.