How social insensitivity drags down team performance

The concept of “collective intelligence” is a good way to think about how teams differ in terms of their ability to solve problems, make good decisions and generate innovations. Teams with high collective intelligence are better at combining skills, knowledge and abilities in ways that generate emergent, group level competencies that transcend those of individual members.

The ramifications of collective intelligence in lab contexts are obvious, given the complexity and intellectual demands of scientific work and the team-based nature of much research. Lab teams that are better at integrating their skills and talents in the most effective ways are highly likely to out-perform those that do not.

Key to successfully meshing the abilities of a group of individuals is the quality of their interpersonal interactions. It is through conversations, disagreements and sharing ideas and information that individual contributors can combine in productive ways.

One particular interpersonal skills that appears to be an especially important predictor of collective intelligence is social sensitivity. This is our capacity to accurately tune-in to the mental states of those around us - as well as to our own emotions. Understanding how other people are feeling helps to facilitate the rewarding and harmonious interactions that are vital to building collective intelligence across the team.

Studies have found that the average social sensitivity across a group is a good predictor of its collective intelligence, but this paper finesses this idea with an important caveat: It is not really the average social sensitivity of the team that drives this relationship, but that of the least socially sensitive member.

Of course teams containing one person with very low social sensitivity will also tend to have lower average social sensitivity than those that do not, but by using a regression model, the researchers were able to pick apart these factors to reach their surprising conclusion: Minimum social sensitivity, and not mean or maximum sensitivity within the group was the only significant independent predictor of collective intelligence.

Possibly, this is a sign that if only one member of a team is unable to tune-in to the “wavelength” of the rest, collaboration is complicated and hampered across the board.

This has clear ramifications for where we need to focus interventions designed to improve team effectiveness or collective intelligence. By focusing on developing social sensitivity and interpersonal skills in those who struggle most in these areas, striking improvements may be possible at a much lower cost.

This may be especially relevant in scientific teams, where neurodiversity is relatively high, and people skills are often neglected in training. By identifying those whose emotional intelligence lags behind that of their peers and supporting them through targeted interventions such as one-to-one coaching, the whole team’s collective intelligence – and its overall performance - could be lifted significantly.

Studies referenced:

  • Curşeu, P. L., Schruijer, S., and Boroş, S. (2007). The effects of groups' variety and disparity on groups' cognitive complexity. Group Dyn. Theory Res. Pract. 11, 187. doi: 10.1037/1089-2699.11.3.187
  • Meslec N, Aggarwal I and Curseu PL (2016) The Insensitive Ruins It All: Compositional and Compilational Influences of Social Sensitivity on Collective Intelligence in Groups. Front. Psychol. 7:676. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00676
  • Woolley, A. W., Chabris, C. F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N., and Malone, T. W. (2010). Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science 330, 686–688. doi: 10.1126/science.1193147

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