Signs of Socially Intelligent Life: Getting the Best from a Group

Seeking the “wisdom of crowds” is quite popular right now, and I’ve always believed in scanning the room to get the “sense of the group.” I’m also a big proponent of the value of teamwork and believe in enhancing the ability of work teams at all levels to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate.

“Emotional Intelligence” — the ability to recognize and manage your emotions so you can interact more effectively with others — has been an accepted concept since author, psychologist, and science journalist Daniel Goleman introduced it in 1990. Knowing how to play well with others is a crucial life skill, whether you learned it on the block or in the early childhood center — or even more painfully, later in life.

Difficulties between groups are well documented — think of the classic conflicts between sales and marketing, sales and service, and sales and operations (no ding on sales — it’s just the most externally focused of the groups). But it’s even more interesting, and often more painful, when unproductive behavior occurs inside a group.

Some groups are better than others at combining the individual skills and smarts of their members to create successful outcomes, according to recent research at Carnegie Mellon University and MIT. This “group intelligence” has been the focus of a number of articles published over the past six months.

Groups appear to have a consistent level of collective intelligence that is not, as you might expect, based on the members’ average intelligence, nor anchored by the level of the most intelligent member. Instead, a group’s collective intelligence depends on the degree to which its members (1) take turns speaking and (2) respond to social cues from other members, referred to as “social sensitivity.”

The studies show that having women in a group seems to help raise its group intelligence level. It may be that, based on cultural norms and expectations, women are typically more practiced than men at sharing the floor, reading the audience, and responding accurately to interpersonal signals.

Why does this matter? Higher levels of group intelligence create better outcomes. Negative interpersonal dynamics create friction in the system and waste everyone’s time and energy; sometimes the group’s responsibilities themselves are torpedoed in the scrum.

So regardless of a group’s other competencies, you can improve its performance overall by strengthening its communication practices. That may come down to choosing people who already have the necessary skills, or teaching people how to work effectively together. Then teamwork won’t degenerate into bad behavior — it’s not that there will never be disagreement, but when it does occur, it should be respectful, productive, and focused on content rather than personality.

Thinking about what’s going on with other people, giving them the chance to express themselves, waiting your turn, and showing empathy: These are skills we were asked to learn in kindergarten, but some folks need to learn them on the job in order to be able to get the job done.

Onward and upward,

LK

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