What Makes a Team Smarter?

What Makes a Team Smarter

One of the most fascinating concepts in the study of teamwork and collaboration is the concept of collective intelligence—the idea that when teams collaborate exceptionally well, they tap into a reservoir of knowledge and abilities that exceed the sum of each individual’s capability. Research led by Anita Williams Wooley helped solidified this theory with evidence that some teams truly did perform better than merely the average of the individual team member’s abilities.

Perhaps more surprisingly, teams who managed to achieve collective intelligence did so on a variety of tasks—even tasks for which some teams had individual members whose knowledge and abilities were uniquely suited. In other words, talent didn’t make the team. The team made the talent.

But taking a team from individually talented to collectively intelligent can be tricky. In this article, we’ll outline what makes a team smarter through five evidence-based actions.

Leverage Diversity

The first action that makes a team smarter is to leverage diversity. It’s undeniable at this point that diverse teams perform better than homogenous ones. However, many teams and organizations achieve a level of diversity but fail to experience the benefits. Simply put they’re not leveraging diversity. The reason is that diversity in its commonly used definition (racial, ethnic, gender, etc.) is intended to lead to an intellectual diversity on the team. But often it doesn’t. New members join the team and increase the surface level diversity but either don’t bring different perspectives or don’t feel safe and included enough to express their different perspectives. Great teams leverage diversity by creating the psychological safety that allows those differing ideas and opinions. And in doing so make the whole team smarter.

Build Empathy

The second action that makes a team smarter is to build empathy. And when seeking to leverage diversity, building empathy isn’t a suggested action but a requirement. Building empathy on work teams doesn’t mean the same as empathy in personal relationships—teams don’t have to get to the level of empathy where they feel each other’s pain. But they do need to understand the different perspectives, preferences, and contexts of their teammates. And more importantly, they have to recognize the validity of those perspectives and preferences even if they disagree. This type of empathy is built through exercises that draw out those differences—it could be personality testing and group discussion, but it could also be in holding team charter meetings or sharing “manuals of me.” These exercises not only draw out differences, but they create a set of team norms that help the team perform and make the whole team smarter.

Take Turns Sharing

The third action that makes a team smarter is to take turns sharing. While teams are building those norms, enforcing conversational turn taking will likely be one of the most effective ones. That’s because Wooley’s research suggests turn taking in conversation is one of the strongest correlated actions to the experience of collective intelligence. But most teams don’t do this. Instead, they defer to the “hippo” (highest paid person’s opinion), or they allow a few over-talkers to dominate every meeting. High-performing, collectively intelligent teams do the opposite. They have rules and rhythms in place to ensure that everyone on the team is given an equal chance to share their input. And their leaders don’t make decisions without knowing they’ve heard from everyone. Doing so makes the leader’s decision better because it makes the whole team smarter.

Listen Actively

The fourth action that makes a team smarter is to listen actively. It’s great to take turns and make sure everyone has a chance to speak, but unless they’re truly heard the team doesn’t get any smarter. And unless they feel truly heard, they likely won’t feel comfortable sharing much longer. That means making sure each member of the team is committed to actively listening and responding with respect when others share. On teams, leaders model the way on active listening. When leaders make consistent eye contact and use nonverbals to demonstrate connection, they train others on the team to do so. And when leaders resist the urge to jump in and share immediately, and instead ask follow-up questions that draw more information out, their behavior often gets copied on the team. That helps everyone feel their perspective is valued and makes the whole team smarter.

Equalize Status

The fifth action that makes a team smarter is to equalize status. As we’ve discussed above, often what shuts down a conversation and keeps a team from being collectively intelligent is defaulting to the highest status person in the room—whether it’s the leader or an over-talker. That person speaking too early or too forcefully in the conversation sets a tone that everyone else is responding too and can often trigger self-censoring behaviors in teammates. That’s why high-performing, collectively intelligent teams create methods to equalize status and reinforce the idea that—as long as we’re in discussion—all ideas are of equal value. Some teams even use symbols or gestures (like removing titles or status markers) to reinforce equality. When teams create a feeling of equal status on a team, the discussion gets better and the whole team gets smarter.

And as a team leader, the actions taken to equalize status are likely the best place to start. Equal teams are better able to leverage diversity and build empathy. Equal teams are more likely to take turns sharing and demonstrate active listening. Focusing on equalizing status first makes it more likely the team is able to tap into collective knowledge—to truly be smarter. And when teams get smarter they make it more likely everyone on the team can do their best work ever.


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About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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