How to make groups more productive? Add women.

The “distribution of conversational turn-taking” — balanced conversation in meetings, for example, where all voices get heard — is a useful proxy for group effectiveness.

We’ve come to understand that people have different kinds of intelligence, based principally on the work of Howard Gartner and his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which broke with the prior notion of a generalized sort of intelligence. Strangely, although people have grasped the concept of multiple intelligences, I have never met anyone who could reel off all nine: kind of like the seven dwarfs, where people always forget Doc or Sleepy. Gartner’s intelligence types were these: logical-mathematical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential.

In business, we have a very strong bias toward logical-mathematical, and this is strongly correlated to the bias toward so-called general intelligence, or the “g factor,” which is what IQ tests are all about. However, a great deal of recent research suggests that interpersonal intelligence may be as important in business, or maybe more so. Interpersonal intelligence may be better thought of as social sensitivity, or being attuned to other’s moods, feelings, and psychological makeup. It is often confused with extraversion, or being “social.”

Research led by Anita Wooley of CMU (with Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, Nada Hashmi, and Thomas W. Malone) has shed light on the role social sensitivity plays in group behavior. Specifically, the researchers wondered,

“Psychologists have repeatedly shown that a single statistical factor — often called ‘general intelligence’ — emerges from the correlations among people’s performance on a wide variety of cognitive tasks. But no one has systematically examined whether a similar kind of ‘collective intelligence’ exists for groups of people.”

In research involving 699 people, they discovered the collective intelligence factor, or “c factor.” And what was it?

“This ‘c factor’ is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.”

So, the “distribution of conversational turn-taking” — balanced conversation in meetings, for example, where all voices get heard — is a useful proxy for group effectiveness. But I doubt that many organizations consider the issue proactively. For example, at many meetings the organizer asks if someone is willing to keep notes, but I have yet to sit in on a meeting where the organizer asks for someone to keep a tally of who speaks and for how long.

It’s not clear that doing so would actually lead to the c factor increasing, like if you exercise a certain muscle, so it may not matter, unless you are trying to predict the success of a future group. What does matter, however, is adding people with great social sensitivity into groups lacking it. And that strongly correlates with the XX side of things. Yes, many men are socially sensitive and some women aren’t, but the average woman is more socially sensitive than the average guy.

Originally published at research.gigaom.com on March 19, 2013.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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