How to Make Your Team Smarter: Add More Women?

Last Updated Jun 30, 2011 7:17 AM EDT

Recently, when my colleagues Kimberly Weisul wrote about research showing that lazy members are dragging down your team's performance, it was hard to argue with the findings. Who wants to defend slackers? But perhaps there's another drag on your team that's less intuitive: men.

The claim that more women make a team collectively smarter is based on research out of Carnegie Mellon and MIT (and has been covered on BNET before). But even with top-notch academics behind it, some will find the idea a hard pill to swallow. So recently HBR magazine invited researchers Anita Woolsey and Thomas Malone to participate in the magazine's "Defend Your Research" section and explain how too many Y chromosomes might have a negative impact on a team's IQ.
The researchers note that their findings are preliminary, but the data definitely show that when it comes to team intelligence "the more women, the better." Even Woolsey was surprised by the result but, as she told HBR, perhaps there is a sensible explanation for the results:

You can tell I'm hesitating a little. It's not that I don't trust the data. I do. It's just that part of that finding can be explained by differences in social sensitivity, which we found is also important to group performance. Many studies have shown that women tend to score higher on tests of social sensitivity than men do. So what is really important is to have people who are high in social sensitivity, whether they are men or women.
In theory... the 10 smartest people could make the smartest group, but it wouldn't be just because they were the most intelligent individuals. What do you hear about great groups? Not that the members are all really smart but that they listen to each other. They share criticism constructively. They have open minds. They're not autocratic. And in our study we saw pretty clearly that groups that had smart people dominating the conversation were not very intelligent groups.
Perhaps there's an additional takeaway here besides reinforcing the case for gender diversity in business. If the real reason that women make teams smarter is essentially that they're better listeners and more emotionally intelligent in their interactions with the group, an equally sensible lesson is that anyone -- man or woman -- who wants to improve the intelligence of their team could work on their social sensitivity. After all, physical gender is pretty much fixed, behavior is flexible.

This idea is very similar to the central suggestions of a new book entitled Brilliance by Design by Vicki Halsey, which we've covered here before. In it, she suggests you can make your co-workers smarter by focusing on them and their passions, and by helping them form collaborative connections, or in other words by applying the sort of nurturing approach to teamwork that's traditionally associated with women. If the principle works for individuals, couldn't it apply to making the team as a whole more clever too?

Do you agree that a traditionally female approach to teamwork could up your team's collective IQ?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user JodiWomack, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.