Why smart teams act stupidly?
David Robson/ BBC
Many organisations employ highly intelligent, qualiﬁed people in the assumption that they will automatically combine their collective brainpower to produce magical results. Yet such groups often fail to cash in on their talents, with poor creativity, lost eﬃciency and sometimes overly risky decision making. Yet there are also plenty of notorious examples where team thinking fails, sometimes at great cost. Opposing voices point to the phenomenon of ‘groupthink’, ﬁrst described in detail by the Yale University psychologist Irving Janis. Inspired by the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961, he explored the reasons why the Kennedy administration decided to invade Cuba. He concluded that Kennedy’s advisors had been too eager to reach a consensus decision and too anxious about questioning each other’s judgements. Instead, they reinforced their existing biases.
Sceptics of collective reasoning may also point to the many times that groups simply fail to agree on any decision at all, reaching an impasse, or they may overly complicate a problem by incorporating all the points of view. This impasse is really the opposite of the more single-minded groupthink, but it can nonetheless be very damaging for a team’s productivity. You want to avoid “design by committee”. Unlike an individual intelligence test, many of the tasks were practical in nature. In a test of negotiation skills, for instance, the groups had to imagine that they were housemates sharing a car on a trip into town, each with a list of groceries – and they had to plan their trip to get the best bargains with the least driving time. In a test of moral reasoning, meanwhile, the subjects played the role of a jury, describing how they would judge a basketball player who had bribed his instructor. And to test their overall execution, the team members were each sat in front of a separate computer and asked to enter words into a shared online document – a deceptively simple challenge that tested how well they could coordinate their activities. The participants were also asked to perform some verbal or abstract reasoning tasks that might be included in a traditional IQ test – but they answered as a group, rather than individually. The ﬁrst exciting ﬁnding was that each team’s score on one of the constituent tasks correlated with its score on the other tasks. In other words, there appeared to be an underlying factor (rather like the underlying brainpower that is meant to be reﬂected in our general intelligence) that meant that some teams consistently performed better than others. Crucially, a group’s success appeared to only modestly reﬂect the members’ average IQ. Nor could it be strongly linked to the highest IQ within the group. The teams weren’t simply relying on the smartest member to do all the thinking. Since they published that ﬁrst paper in Science in 2010, Woolley’s team has veriﬁed their test in many diﬀerent contexts, showing that it can predict the success of many real-world projects. They studied students completing a two-month group project in a university management course, for instance. Sure enough, the collective intelligence score predicted the team’s performance on various assignments. Intriguingly, teams with a higher collective intelligence kept on building on their advantage during this project: not only were they better initially; they also improved the most over the eight weeks. One of the most consistent predictors is the team members’ social sensitivity. To measure this quality, Woolley used a classic measure of emotional perception, in which participants are given photos of an actor’s eyes and asked to determine what emotion that person is supposed to be feeling, with the participants’ average score strongly predicting how well they would perform on the group tasks. Woolley has found, is when team members start competing against each other. This was the problem with the ﬁnancial services company and their broader corporate culture.