How to increase group intelligence for better decision-making – or why not to rely on a group of geniuses! New research breaks the ground to understand collaborative intelligence – but how to apply it to the workplace?
Better alone than in a team?
Think about this: What teams make the best decisions?
We all experienced it at some point: Even a group of the best and brightest people often ends up with poor decisions that do not do its individual member’s intelligence justice.
What goes wrong? How does a group of smart individuals, even geniuses, end up with poor decisions when they stick their heads together? What are they missing? Moreover, how can we avoid those obstacles to come to better decisions as a group?
Intelligence of individuals has been well studied for over a 100 years: A solid framework exists to measure the intelligence quotient (IQ). Individuals undergo a series of mental challenges under the premise that someone performing well in one task tends to perform well in most others too. Overall, the IQ is regarded as “a reliable predictor of a wide range of important life outcomes over a long span of time, including grades in school, success in many occupations, and even life expectancy,” as researchers put it.
Modern IQ tests consider an IQ close to 100 as average.
Does ‘Group Intelligence’ exist?
When we look at what it takes to make more intelligent decisions as a group than as individuals, the first question this raises is whether something like a measurable ‘group intelligence’ actually exists. If so, is it measurable and –perhaps‑ higher than the intelligence of its members?
Only recently, scientists took a deeper look at the intelligence of groups and made surprising findings. The joint team included MIT’s Tom Malone, whom we met previous in a post (“Collective Intelligence: The Genomics of Crowds”) as well as others from well-known academic institutions comprising the MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College.
The researchers approached group intelligence following a similar systematic approach as the intelligence metrics for individuals. However, they linked group intelligence to performance as an endpoint, which makes their finding even more valuable for the workplace!
Outsmarting genius as a group
First, the researchers established that group intelligence in performance indeed exists and is measurable. They also found that the group’s intelligence does not add up to the sum of the intelligence of its individual members. In fact, the collective intelligence, or ‘c-factor’, shows only a weak correlation “with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members” – this is remarkable finding! It means is that you cannot boost a group’s intelligence by composing or spiking the group with genius-level individuals!
Obviously, factors apply other than high individual IQ to increase the intelligence of the group.
The results from two studies consistently and overwhelmingly demonstrate that group intelligence outsmart individual intelligence – by far!
Here are more details on the science for those how want to dig deeper: Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups.
Limited by a high IQ?
Individual intelligence only has a practical value to a certain point. There is an important difference between what an IQ test measures as general intelligence and what Robert J. Sternberg calls ‘practical intelligence’ in his book Successful Intelligence: How Practical and Creative Intelligence Determine Success in Life. The presence of one does not automatically imply the presence of the other.
What it comes down to is that a high general intelligence is merely a measurable value in the lab but it does not also translate into a more successful life! An individual IQ above 135 or so can lead to quite the opposite (for reference, ‘genius’ starts at 140 on Terman’s classification). The higher IQ becomes rather a hindrance than an advantage in real life: a very high IQ tends to clutter and confuse a genius’ mind with more irrelevant options, which make it harder for them to see the most applicable one and come to a decision.
In contrast, practical intelligence relates more to social savvy or ‘street smarts’ – a cunning and practical understanding that proves advantageous in the real world more than a high general IQ!
Here is the magic sauce!
Surprisingly, the strongest correlation of group intelligence is with three factors:
- The average social sensitivity of the group members, i.e. “reading the mind in the eyes” of another person. There is something to be said for bringing together emotionally intelligent people.
- Equality in the distribution of conversational turn-taking meaning an equal share of time to speak. Our society and businesses seem to favor smooth-talkers and attracted to extrovert and outspoken individuals that seem to signal competence, decisiveness, and determination.
Group intelligence, however, does not increase when there is a strong vocal leader, who dominates the discussion to push everyone in his or her direction. Be careful not to leave out the brilliance of individuals who may get steamrolled by the loud and dominating: introverts, in particular, are at a disadvantage. They are easily stuck in an extrovert world.
Given that the introvert/extrovert ratio in the USA is roughly 50/50 (according to the 1998 National Representative Sample), failing to include introverts effectively is a costly mistake, as it excludes their knowledge and valuable input to the decision making process ‑ and lowers the collective intelligence of the group. Introverts, for example, favor structured communication that plays to their strengths by allowing them to research and prepare; they need more time to express their refined response.
- The proportion of females in the group composition; the more women the better. This appears to account largely to a higher social sensibility that women have over their male group members in general. However, all three factors have to come together, so building female-only teams does not do the charm either.
In a nutshell
When we bring it all together, what surprises me most is how little of this solid research has penetrated the workplace. Where employees and management teams make decisions, the survival of organizations is at stake and relies on leveraging the collective intelligence of the group effectively.
A myriad of practical applications for these findings come to mind. Here are just two examples:
- Women still struggle to achieve gender equality in many organizations ‑ the amount of women in management positions is a widely used metrics that refers to the female proportion of the workforce. The common approach is to achieve this by ‘swinging the stick’ to establish and enforce quotas and leave it at that – Mission accomplished?!
Wouldn’t it be more compelling to offer the ‘sweet carrot’ of increasing group intelligence in leadership teams for better business results that includes leveraging the natural advantage of females?
Again, the female quota alone does not boost the group intelligence. We also need social sensitivity and equal shares of talking time. Thus, a flanking business application would go beyond how we compose teams based on gender. It considers social sensitivity measures and some structure to how we conduct group discussions or meetings to maximize the collective intelligence by including and engaging all participants. A challenge also for how we recruit, train, and evaluate our workforce.
Food for thought.
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