Five ways to boost “collective intelligence”

Simple psychological techniques can transform your teamwork and leadership (Credit: Hannah Busing/Unsplash)

The history of sport is full of surprising twists of fate. Perhaps the most famous upset of all is the ‘Miracle on Ice’ — when a team of American college students beat the accomplished Soviet hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics. More recently, there was Argentina’s surprise gold medal in basketball at the 2004 Olympics, where they thrashed the USA — the firm favourites; and the 2016 Euros championships, when the Icelandic soccer team — ranked 131st before the tournament — beat England to the quarter finals. In each case, the underdogs had less established players, yet somehow their combined talent was greater than the sum of their parts.

As I describe in my recent book The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes, cutting-edge experiments by Anita Williams Woolley at Carnegie Mellon University have shown that team performance depends surprisingly little on the members’ individual talents. The smartest teams are not those with the heighest IQs or the greatest experience, but those with the best communication skills. Indeed, some startling research by Adam Galinsky at Columbia Business School has shown that a high-proportion of “star” players can often backfire, as their rutting egos destroy the collaboration within the team and prevent the team from reaching its goals. The so-called “too-much-talent effect” has been observed in professional soccer, basketball and Wall Street banks.

In the face of the economic and social challenges created by the current pandemic, a happy, creative and productive workplace could not be more important for leaders and employees alike. So how can we create a ‘dream team’ like the Miracle on Ice? I recently wrote a series of articles for BBC Worklife on the best ways to boost the “collective intelligence” of any team or organisation, and here are some of the most eye-catching findings.

Build emotional awareness

Abundant research shows that the best teams in almost any field are those with the greatest emotional awareness and regulation. It helps team members to keep each other motivated and allows productive disagreement to spur creativity without ending in resentment and lasting conflict. If your team struggles with this, Smaranda Boros at Vlerick Business School in Ghent has six simple ground rules that will instantly improve the emotional dynamic of any meeting. They are:

1) Have a “check in” at the beginning of the meeting — that is, ask how everyone is doing

2) Assume that undesirable behaviour takes place for a reason. Find out what that reason is. Ask questions and listen. Avoid negative attributions

3) As the work proceeds, tell your team-mates what you are thinking and how you are feeling about the process

4) When you make decisions, ask whether everyone agrees with the decision

5) Question the quickness of taking a decision

6) Ask quiet members what they think

Read more: How elite teams increase their emotional intelligence.

Communicate less

It’s good to talk, but counter-intuitive research by Jesse Shore at Boston University suggests we should limit our interactions with others, particularly during brain storming and problem solving. Too much communication between members can lead the group to converge on a solution too quickly, without exploring all the options — whereas longer periods of isolated work increases the chances that each individual will come up with something truly original, offering a greater range of solutions to analyse at a later point. So try to aim for short, intense conversations or meetings, with plenty of time for independent work in between, rather than a continual drip-feed of group updates through email or Slack channels. Read More: The benefits isolation can have on your work.

(Credit: John Schnobrich/Unspash)

Don’t be constrained by success

Xerox’s R&D department pioneered the first personal computers — including the WYSIWYG displays and desktop publishing — but the company failed to capitalise on their inventions. As Loizos Heracleous at Warwick Business School in the UK explained to me, the reason is a phenomenon called the “competency trap”, which involves a rigid corporate culture, too invested in its past successes to make new innovations. Heracleous has various suggestions on how to avoid this, including the idea that each employee takes a stint in the R&D department to broaden their mind to new innovations. Read More: How to avoid the competency trap.

Avoid the Peter Principle

In the 1960s, the educationalist Laurence J Peter argued that this was so. If you only promote people according to their current performance, they will rise until they reach a position beyond their capabilities — at which point, they will cease to be promoted and will remain in that position for the rest of their career. According to this logic, “every employee tends to rise to his [or her] level of incompetence” — filling an organisation with people who are bad at what they do. The so-called Peter Principle was originally intended as satire, but organisational scientists have now found evidence for the idea — and their conclusions suggest that we need to find new ways to test management potential, and better means of rewarding high-performing colleagues within their current position. Read more: The reasons why people become incompetent at work.

Be humble

When we think of strong leadership, humility might not come to mind — but a torrent of psychological research is now revealing the merits of this neglected virtue. Humbler people learn quicker, and are better communicators and decision makers — and inspire better problem solving in their teams too. In one study, intellectual humility proved to be more important for overall performance than actual IQ. Importantly, humility appears to be contagious — meaning that a humble leader will encourage greater humility in their employees, producing a more open-minded and creative team.

In one study of 105 technology companies, Amy Yi Ou at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University found that humbler CEOs encouraged greater collaboration and information sharing among the firm’s top management team. The improved decision making resulted in greater overall profits. Leadership humility appears to be especially helpful when navigating uncertainty, as an organisation abandons the status quo to find new ways of operating — something that all managers should be considering in these troubled times.

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