Great Teams Need Social Intelligence, Equal Participation, and More Women


In sports, some people are famous for “making other players better.” Magic Johnson, the great basketball player and winner of five National Basketball Association championships, was not merely a terrific scorer, passer, and rebounder; he also transformed his teammates, some ordinary players, into stars. Early in his career, Michael Jordan was known to be great, maybe even the greatest of the great, but his teams just didn’t win. People wondered whether he could ever win a championship, because he “wasn’t a team player.”

In business, some people are thought to be like the young Michael Jordan — individual superstars who, apart from their own skills, don’t add much to team efforts. But there are others, like Magic Johnson, who are widely thought to make their teammates better. Is it possible to say something about what kind of person raises the performance of an entire group or team? Not something impressionistic, intuitive, and anecdotal, but something that is actually based on evidence? Intriguing answers are starting to emerge, and they involve something called “Factor C.”

Social scientists have uncovered a statistical factor that reflects how people do a large number of cognitive tasks; this factor is sometimes referred to as “general intelligence” (also known as the “G Factor”). An obvious conclusion is that groups should seek people who have something like general intelligence. With respect to various measures of cognitive ability, there is a consistent finding across studies of many different small groups: Average IQ is correlated with improved performance on the part of groups.

But one factor might be even more important than IQ, and it has been identified in studies from a group at the Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT. These researchers wondered if there could be some method to assess the problem-solving capacity of a team across many types of intellectual and social problems. They conducted two large-scale tests of 2-5 member groups, solving problems such as brainstorming puzzles, answering IQ test questions, solving moral dilemmas, and even playing checkers.

Their central finding is that three individual measures combined into a useful measure of Collective IQ, which they called Factor C. First, the average of members’ scores on a test of social perception predicted higher performance by the teams. When you take the test, you are shown a series of photos of just the eyes of another person and you are asked to judge what emotion the person in the photo is experiencing (e.g., playful, irritated, bored). It’s a widely used test called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test.”

A second factor was unevenness of participation, or the tendency of a few members to dominate discussion. The more a few members dominated the discussion, the worse the team performed.

Finally, the number of women on the team positively predicted performance. There was a direct relationship between percentage of women members and performance. This was not simply a “diversity factor”; rather the more women, the better the performance. Other research supports this finding.

Perhaps the most striking conclusion is that the Factor C measure – the three measures together — was more predictive of team performance than conventional measures of intelligence. Average IQ and highest IQ were not correlated with team performance nearly as highly as Factor C.

To be sure, we should be careful not to draw extravagant conclusions here. Women are also consistently better than men at a variety of social perception and social judgment tests (like the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test”), and it may be social perception, rather than gender as such, that is responsible for some of the findings. And at this stage, it is difficult to identify exactly what underlies the high correlation between Factor C and performance on the problem-solving tasks. What seems to be most important is the capacity of the individual members to cooperate with one another and to coordinate their performance.

It is clear that wise groups should devote real attention to social abilities, including the capacity both to participate and to listen, in selecting personnel and in devising social norms for team performance. A strong preference to work on teams, especially when linked to social skills, is a good predictor – as is the ability to read other people’s emotional states.

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