Secrets of effective teams

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�Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.�

-Helen Keller

An effective team can achieve far more than what one person can achieve alone. Teams innovate faster, are quicker to spot mistakes, and find superior solutions when faced with a problem1. Good teams can also confer social and emotional benefits, including a sense of belonging, positive relationships, recognition and appreciation for one�s contributions, and emotional support.

But team dynamics can be difficult, and an ineffective team may not only fail to produce results, but also disrupt relationships, create conflict, and interfere with work productivity, wasting employees� time and limiting their potential. Often, underperforming teams fall short not because of a lack of talent, but because the members of the group aren�t able to find ways to work effectively together.

So what�s the key to an effective team? We�ve long had the ability to measure individual intelligence, but how can psychologists assess which factors make for an intelligent team?

To answer this question, one group of researchers2 used a clever approach: They took a set of tasks traditionally used to measure individual intelligence, asked participants to complete them as a group, and measured the collective intelligence of the team.

Researchers randomly assigned participants to groups of two to five people and presented them with a variety of tasks, including solving visual puzzles, brainstorming (e.g., about how many uses they could think of for a brick), making collective moral judgments, and negotiating over limited resources. The researchers also tested the intelligence of individual participants.

Surprisingly, the study found that the collective intelligence of a team was not closely related to the intelligence of its members. Nor was it correlated with the factors you might think are important for teamwork: how well the group cohered, how motivated people were, or how happy or unhappy they felt about being on the team.

Rather, a team�s intelligence was tied to three other variables2:

  1. The average social sensitivity of group members. Social sensitivity refers to how good you are at intuiting how others feel based on their facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. In this study, social sensitivity was measured by a test called �Reading the Mind in the Eyes,� which assesses how accurately you can identify people�s emotions just by looking at their eyes.
  2. Equality in conversational turn-taking. Teams in which everyone talked about the same amount of time, the study found, performed much better than teams in which one or two people dominated the conversation.
  3. The proportion of women in the group. A team�s collective intelligence, the study found, was correlated with the proportion of women in the group. This was at least partly due to the fact that women generally have higher social sensitivity than men.

These findings relate to a concept called psychological safety. Business school professor Amy Edmondson defines the term as �a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,� and as �a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves�3.

Teams with a culture of psychological safety tend to agree with these statements3:

  • Members of this team respect each other�s abilities.
  • Members of this team are interested in each other as people.
  • In this team, you aren�t rejected for being yourself or stating what you think.
  • Members of this team believe that other members have positive intentions.

They also tend to engage in these behaviors:

  • Seeking or giving feedback
  • Making changes and improvements (vs. sticking with a course too long)
  • Obtaining or providing help or expertise
  • Experimenting
  • Engaging in constructive conflict or confrontation

The best teams, in other words, listen to each other�s feelings and are sensitive to each other�s needs. The irony is that even as companies seek to codify the hard and fast principles that make teams work, these findings underscore the importance of the sometimes messy and often unpredictable emotions that make us human.

�When companies try to optimize everything, it�s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences,� writes Charles Duhigg, �like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel�that can�t really be optimized�1.


1. Duhigg, C. (2016, February 26). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. The New York Times.
2. Woolley, A.W., Chabris, C.F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N., & Malone, T.W. (2010). Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science, 330, 686�688.
3. Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44, 350-383.