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Why are the smartest teams majority-female?

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

I had a dozen leaders in a workshop on unlocking team intelligence.

I shared this rather unassuming chart and it was the moment that stopped the group in their tracks.

Let me explain.

Collective Intelligence

The chart is from the work of Anita Williams Wooley, Professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Professor Wooley’s work has shown that teams have a “collective intelligence” - that is, the ability to solve complex problems together - which is NOT well correlated with the Intelligence of the team’s individual members.

Instead, the collective intelligence of a team is driven much more by the social dynamics between the team members.

Majority-female teams are the most collectively intelligent

The chart shows the collective intelligence of teams according to their gender make up.

And the leaders in my workshop found it very insightful.

Here’s why.

In the research, teams with all-males, majority-males, 50/50 or all-female are all about equal in their ability to solve complex problems.

But there’s one clear peak: majority-female teams are the smartest.

There’s even a magic number. If your team is made up of 80% females, this is the sweet spot for team intelligence.

Why 80% females?

Let’s dive under the surface of this data.

If you take a team which is all male and you add one female, the team gets marginally more intelligent.

That’s moving from the left-hand side of the graph, one notch in.

But if you take a team which is all female and you add one male, the team gets significantly more intelligent. That’s moving in from the right-hand side by one notch.

Now, let me jump in and be clear this is NOT because one gender is more intelligent than the other. No. It’s because when you have a team of females, and one male joins, the women actually want to hear what the new team member has to say. Whereas, with one female in a team of males, research tends to show that the female’s voice is not heard anywhere near as much as the men’s.

Why does this happen?

It’s not actually specifically about women and men. It’s about social skills. And it just happens that, on average, women score higher on the social skills needed to help teams solve complex problems.

Professor Woolley and colleagues have searched for the drivers that leads to some teams to be more intelligent than others. Time after time, across hundreds of teams, two factors emerge.

First, social perceptions.

The ability of team members to imagine how other team members are feeling.

If you want to measure your own skill in this area, you can take the reading the mind in their eyes test.

Interestingly, social perception turns out to be even more important when teams are working together online (remote).

Second, conversational turn-taking

When one or two individuals dominate the talking, teams are very often less capable at solving complex problems. When they take turns to talk, they are more intelligent.

And on average, women are better at giving others airtime in meetings.

What’s the learning?

I wonder how this relates to your experience?

Have you been the token female, or token male in a team?

Have you worked in an all-one-gender team?

Have you worked with people who do WAAAAY too much talking?

To me, there was an interesting result buried within this research. They found zero correlation between team intelligence and traditional ‘teaminess’ metrics like team cohesion, motivation or satisfaction.

Of course, being nice, and being inspired, are important. But they’re not enough in our modern workplaces where teams are daily faced with complex problems which can’t be solved alone.

So, when you’re trying to build a team that’s smarter than the sum of its parts make sure you focus on those specific social skills - reading people’s feelings, and conversational turn taking.

Over to you.

Written by Rob Pyne


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