I recently read an interesting article published earlier this year in the NY Times Magazine by reporter Charles Duhigg, - What Google Learned From its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. The article is focused on Project Aristotle, an initiative Google embarked on in 2012 that examined hundreds of Google teams in their quest to learn why some work groups thrive while others falter.
“[M]any of today’s most valuable firms have come to realize that analyzing and improving individual workers - a practice known as employee performance optimization - isn’t enough,” writes Duhigg. “As commerce becomes increasingly global and complex, the bulk of modern work is more and more team-based… at many companies, more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.”
“In Silicon Valley, software engineers are encouraged to work together, in part because studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems,” he later adds. “Studies also show that people working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction. In a 2015 study, executives said that profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more. Within companies and conglomerates, as well as in government agencies and schools, teams are now the fundamental unit of organization. If a company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.”
The article devotes several paragraphs to the pioneering research on group performance by MIT professor Tom Malone, CMU professor Anita Woolley and their various collaborators over the past 8 years. Their work addressed a very intriguing set of questions: Do groups exhibit characteristic levels of intelligence which can be measured and used to predict the group’s performance across a wide variety of cognitive tasks? If so, can you devise tests to measure the group’s intelligence using methodologies and statistical techniques similar to those that have been applied to measure the IQs of individuals over the past hundred years?
In their initial set of studies, they randomly assigned nearly 700 volunteers into groups of two to five members. Each group worked together on a diverse set of short tasks selected to represent the kinds of problems that groups work on in the real world. These included tasks requiring logical analysis such as solving visual puzzles; tasks emphasizing collective brainstorming and moral judgements; and tasks based on coordination and planning such as negotiating over limited resources. They also measured the individual IQs of each of the participants.
They did indeed find a statistically significant collective intelligence factor that predicted how well each group would do on a wide range of tasks. But, neither the average intelligence of the individual group members nor the highest individual intelligence were strong predictors of the group’s overall performance. They also looked at group cohesion, motivation and satisfaction, but none of them worked either.
Instead, the best performing groups exhibited three key characteristics:
- More equal contributions. Group members contributed more equally, instead of letting one or two dominate the conversation.
- Higher empathy. Members scored higher in social sensitivity, that is, the ability to read each others emotional states as measured by the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test originally developed at the Autism Research Center in the University of Cambridge.
- More women. Groups with more women outperformed groups with more men. This is likely because as previous research at the Autism Research Center has shown, women generally score higher than men in the Reading-the-Mind social sensitivity tests.
In a later study, Woolley, Malone, et al replicated their earlier findings, but with a twist. They wanted to explore whether groups that worked online instead of face-to-face also exhibited collective intelligence. To do so, they assembled 68 teams, half of which worked face to face like those in their earlier studies, and half worked online with no ability to see the other group members.
They found that whether online or off, some teams consistently outperformed the others. And, just like in the earlier studies, the best performing teams were better at communicating with each other, participating equally in the process and exhibiting higher emotion-reading skills.
Other recent studies have come to similar conclusions. For example, in a 2015 paper, - The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market, - Harvard professor David Deming showed that labor markets have been rewarding individuals with strong social skills, that is, with interpersonal skills that facilitate interactions and communications with others.
Deming’s research found that since 1980, social-skill intensive occupations have enjoyed most of the employment growth across the whole wage spectrum. Employment and wage growth have been particularly strong in jobs requiring both high cognitive and high social skills. But since 2000, they have fallen in occupations with high cognitive but low social skill requirements, - “suggesting that cognitive skills are increasingly a necessary but not sufficient condition for obtaining a high-paying job.”
Deming writes that “computers are still very poor at simulating human interaction. Reading the minds of others and reacting is an unconscious process, and skill in social settings has evolved in humans over thousands of years. Human interaction in the workplace involves team production, with workers playing off of each other’s strengths and adapting flexibly to changing circumstances. Such nonroutine interaction is at the heart of the human advantage over machines. The growing importance of social skills can potentially explain a number of other trends in educational outcomes and the labor market, such as the narrowing - and in some cases reversal - of gender gaps in completed education and earnings.”
As work is becoming more team-based, you’d expect that workers with strong social skills who are more able to work well with others are becoming more valuable. Good teamwork increases productivity through comparative advantage, that is, the notion that different members of a team should specialize in those tasks that they’re best at. Workers with good social skills should be better able to play off each others strengths, quickly learn which tasks they are each best at, and flexibly adapt to changing circumstances.
Another recent paper, - by Ernest Wilson, Dean of the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California (USC), - described a recent study to better understand the key competencies companies are looking for. The study asked business leaders around the world what attributes executives must have to succeed in today’s digital economy.
It found that the traditional hard skills typically provided by engineering and business schools must be complemented with a set of so-called soft skills or attributes. Five such attributes were identified in the study: adaptability, cultural competence, 360-degree thinking, intellectual curiosity, and empathy.
Empathy turned to be the most important of the five attributes. “Frankly, when empathy kept coming up in our research, I was surprised,” said Dean Wilson. “All of the people we interviewed were serious business executives. Empathy was not the first virtue I associated with the rough and tumble of today’s highly competitive business world. I expected to hear about boldness, perseverance, and toughness.”
Toward the end of his article, Duhigg notes the irony inherent in the findings of Google’s Project Aristotle. “The technology industry is not just one of the fastest growing parts of our economy; it is also increasingly the world’s dominant commercial culture. And at the core of Silicon Valley are certain self-mythologies and dictums: Everything is different now, data reigns supreme, today’s winners deserve to triumph because they are cleareyed enough to discard yesterday’s conventional wisdoms and search out the disruptive and the new.”
“The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.”