Unlocking hidden intelligence

Leadership teams need to invest more in their relationships, problem-solving abilities and practical plans in order to improve performance. It’s important to unlock hidden intelligence in your team, says author Rob Pyne

Unlocking hidden intelligence

In 2010, five psychologists set out to test the collective intelligence of teams. They subjected teams of three to five people to hours of tests, including brainstorming, making moral judgments, negotiating and critical thinking. The results of the study by Anita Williams Woolley and her colleagues, published in the journal Science, are little known, and yet they are incredibly important to the way we work, which increasingly involves working in cross-functional teams.

First, the obvious. They found that, just like individuals, teams do have an ‘IQ’ score that 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. They called this ‘Factor C’, for collective intelligence.

Surprising predictors of collective intelligence

Second, the not-so-obvious. While the individual IQ of each team member played some role in determining the performance of the team, it was in a distant fourth place.

Of the top three top factors that predicted the performance of a team, the number of females in that team ranked in third place. 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 second place was the equality of conversational turn-taking. In plain English: does everyone have equal airtime? In the study, this led to better team performance. You know those one or two people who dominate the meeting? These loud people are decreasing the chance that the team finds the best solution.

And in first place, the single biggest predictor of a team’s mental performance was the social sensitivity of the individuals involved. To understand what this is, take a look at the test used to assess this. It’s called the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test, which is used to measure the ability to judge how other people are feeling by just looking at a picture of their eyes.

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 by Woolley and colleagues 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 benefi t 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, and as good communicators, respectful collaborators and able to compromise

Steps to building an intelligent leadership team

My work is mainly with leadership teams. I get called in to help with ‘forming, fi xing or future planning’. I find that a leader-ship team’s collective intelligence has three distinct parts:

  • The team’s emotional intelligence, or EQ, as illustrated above
  • The team’s creative-analytical intelligence or IQ – its ability to solve complex problems
  • The team’s practical intelligence – which I call PQ – the ability to deliver projects, hit targets

As leadership teams spend less time together than functional teams, it’s often the team’s relationships and EQ that need attention. They need to build the emotional foundations of a real team, including trust, authenticity and honesty. Breakthroughs happen when a team answers four key questions: Why? Who? How? and What?

  • Why does this team exist? What value are we here to create?
  • Who is in this team? What unique role and skills does each person bring?
  • How do we need to behave? How should we operate?
  • What are our key business priorities?

Once a team’s EQ is high, you can tackle their collective IQ. If you find the members of your leadership team have long-winded discussions that don’t reach a conclusion, then you’ll want to introduce specific problem-solving structures. For example, you may move through divergent thinking (exploring multiple perspectives) and then into convergent thinking (where you negotiate the best way forward).

Finally, you need to unlock the group’s practical intelligence or PQ. Many leadership teams make decisions but fail to make plans. And if they make plans, they fail to include deadlines, owners and priorities. There will be some practically minded people in your leadership team. So, harness their skills to turn the team’s strategy and decisions into a visible roadmap of projects laid out over the year, a dashboard of key result areas and metrics, and include regular reviews of key projects in your leadership team meetings.

In a McKinsey survey of leadership team members, 80% said their leadership team was not ‘high-performing’. Most leadership teams need to invest more in their relationships, their problem-solving ability and their practical plans in order to improve their performance over time.

Rob Pyne, author of Unlock: Leveraging the Hidden Intelligence in Your Leadership Team, is a leadership coach and facilitator who helps teams unlock their collective intelligence and become smarter than the sum of their parts.