How could we answer this question? To find out what makes some teams smarter and work better than others we could look separately at the characteristics of individuals in the team (e.g., how intelligent they each are or how open to experience they each are). Or, instead, we could look at how the team as a team worked and problem-solved together.
To answer what enabled teams to work well collectively, researchers looked at newly formed teams (of four members each) who were asked to think together to perform a wide range of tasks. They were asked to generate ideas, solve puzzles, detect patterns, and make evaluative judgments.
Groups that collectively showed greater intelligence, as shown in higher performance across this wide range of tasks, were distinguished by two factors:
(1) They communicated more often and their communications were more evenly distributed across the team.
(2) Individuals on the team excelled on a test that measures social/emotional perceptiveness (“Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test”). This test asks you to judge someone’s mental state (e.g., curious, preoccupied, interested) from a photograph of just that person’s eyes.
These two factors were earlier established as important to effective team collaboration in experiments using small face-to-face teams. A more recent study (published in late 2014) asked a new question—would the collective intelligence of groups that met solely online or only virtually be influenced by these same two factors?
Newly formed teams of four people were situated in a room. There were two types of teams, and two types of rooms. For face-to-face teams, the members met in a small room, each team member with a laptop, and they could all see one other, talk directly, and they knew who was on their team. For the online teams, the team members were randomly co-located with other team members in a large room interspersed with other similarly scattered teams, where they did not know or see each other and could communicate solely on laptops using text-based chat online.
If directly reading subtle interpersonal cues (e.g., facial expressions, tone of voice, body language) during face-to-face interactions is a critical team mechanism then it would be expected that online teams would perform more poorly. But that wasn’t what was found—the online teams, who scored high on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, did just as well as the face-to-face groups who also had high abilities on that test. This suggests that the virtual teams could still perceive subtle interpersonal cues in the text messages they shared, perhaps conveyed through sentence structure, phrasing, word choice, timing, or tone.
Equally important, the effects of conversational turn taking also were the same in both groups. In online teams where participation was more equally shared, and not dominated by one or two individuals, online teams performed a wide range of tasks just as well as their face-to-face peers who also had a democratic approach to group problem solving.
So, it’s not just your cognitive ability or how smart as an individual you or your team members are—it’s also how well you can coordinate and be “heedful” of others in your group and the situation you jointly find yourselves in (whether working virtually or face-to-face). Part of the key to better team performance is also making sure that each team member shares in communicating within the group.
Sharing in communication and noticing interpersonal cues, whether in the eyes or “between the lines,” may contribute to a broader group characteristic of heedfulness. As we observe in Innovating Minds:
“In heedfulness the actions and thinking of a group or team emerge based not entirely on habit but on a ‘heedful’ monitoring and comprehending of an unfolding dynamic situation. Each person acts in a way that converges, supplements, or assists with the overall collective effort.
Heedfulness is not solely an effort at paying attention. Rather it is this, combined with an active taking care and staying in touch with new information and its immediate and broader implications—for ourselves, for others, and for a collective envisioning of a larger unfolding joint enterprise.”
—> For more see also:
David Engel, Anita Williams Woolley, Lisa X. Jing, Christopher F. Chabris, & Thomas W. Malone (2014). Reading the Mind in the Eyes or Reading between the Lines? Theory of Mind Predicts Collective Intelligence Equally Well Online and Face-To-Face. PLoS ONE, 9, e115212, pp. 1-16.
Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, A, Nada Hashmi, & Thomas W. Malone (2010). Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. Science, 330, pp. 686–688.
An example of the Reading of the Mind in the Eyes test can be found here.