Want to build an intelligent team? Take a look at ‘Factor C’.

 In Realizer Blog, Teams

In 2010, 5 researchers set out to test the collective intelligence of teams. They subjected teams of 3 to 5 people to hours of tests – including brainstorming, making moral judgements, negotiating and critical thinking.

Their results, published over 3 pages of the journal Science, are little known, and yet incredibly important.

First, the obvious. They found that, just like individuals, teams do have an “IQ” score which predicts their performance on a wide range of tests. If they were good at the brainstorming task, they tended to be better at the negotiating task too and so on. They call this “Factor C”, for collective intelligence.

A surprising result on collective intelligence

Second, the not-so-obvious; the key result. Whilst the individual IQ of the team members played some role in determining the performance of the team, it was in a distant 4th place.

The top 3 factors that predicted the performance of a team were…drum roll…

In 3rd place, the number of females in that team. The more females, the higher the collective intelligence of the team. Women it seems, are generally better at the social dynamics needed to help teams solve tough problems.

In 2nd place, the equality of conversational turn-taking. Huh? In plain English, does everyone have equal airtime? This led to better outcomes, better team performance. You know those meetings where 1 or 2 people dominate the talking? They are decreasing the chance that the team finds the best solution.

And in 1st place, the single biggest predictor of a team’s mental performance was individual’s social sensitivity. To understand specifically what this is, take a look at the test they use for it. It’s called the “Reading-the-mind-in-the-eyes” test and you can take it here. I scored in the 64th percentile, see if you can beat me!

Social sensitivity is part of a bigger area of emotional intelligence. Social sensitivity means the ability to estimate how others are feeling. So why does this matter to team performance?

How social sensitivity drives team performance

A follow-up study in 2012, extended the findings. It showed that social sensitivity also drives performance in a longer term, complex project. And, crucially, they showed that individuals with higher social sensitivity may benefit the team’s intelligence in several ways:-

  • In brainstorms, they are seen as flexible thinkers, good at perceiving and responding to others’ input.
  • They are seen as dependable, sharing the burden of work
  • They are seen as producing high quality work, good communicators, respectful collaborators and able to compromise.

How to put together an intelligent team

Let’s say you are putting together a team which needs to work together, to debate issues and develop ideas. You will do better to pick people of average-IQ-but-high-social-sensitivity, than if you just put all the smartest people in the room.

What’s more, if you put smart people in the room who also dominate the conversation, and are male, your team is likely to underperform. Its collective intelligence will be no better than the sum of its parts.

The best news about Factor C is this: the potential to increase a team’s performance relies not on trying to improve everyone’s IQ (very hard!) but on improving the social dynamics of the team. And that is much more achievable.


Rob Pyne