What Makes A Team Smart?

One of the most important activities for business executives and managers is to set up and empower effective teams.  New research shows that the smartest and most effective teams have characteristics that may surprise you.

In the January 18, 2015 edition of The New York Times[1] three researchers published findings from an MIT study of the characteristics of the smartest teams.  Contrary to popular belief, smarter teams were not based on who had the highest intelligence, as measured by I. Q. tests, the teams with the most extroverts, nor the teams whose members reported being the most motivated to succeed.

Instead, according to the authors, the smartest teams had these characteristics:

  1. Members contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than having one or two people who dominated.
  2. Members scored higher on a test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.
  3. Teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. The authors explain that this last effect was partially due to women, on average, being better at “mind reading” than men.

The authors also reported on another MIT study which compared the performance of physically co-located teams with that of virtual teams.  They found that the same three characteristics above applied to the better performing teams, regardless of whether they were co-located or virtual. Teams that had members who communicated effectively, participated equally and were good at reading emotions did better!

These findings match research published in The Harvard Business Review in 2012. Researchers used electronic badges on team members to collect data on their individual communication behavior, including tone of voice, body language, whom they spoke with and how often.  The researchers found “with remarkable consistency, the data confirmed that communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, we found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors-individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.”[2]

What do you believe makes a smart, effective team?  I would love to hear from you.

Victor Assad is a strategic human resources consultant who works with key decision makers and human resources leaders on talent management, accelerating change, leadership development, and mergers and acquisitions initiatives.  Please e-mail Victor at victorassad6@gmail.com or visit Victor’s website at www.victorhrconsultant.com.

[1] Anita Wolley, Thomas W. Mallone and Christopher Chabris (January 18, 2015) “Why some Teams are Smarter than Others.” The New York Times. Sunday Review, pp 5.

[2] Alex “Sandy” Pentland (April, 2012) “The New Science of Building Great Teams.” The Harvard Business Review.


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