Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why Smart People Make Lousy Teams

It happens all too often: Put a bunch of really smart people in a room, tell them to solve a problem, and watch as they dissolve into blathering idiocy.

Okay, maybe it's not all that bad. But we've all seen groups of supposedly smart people who just can't work well together. That's because, according to recent research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College, raw smarts doesn't have much to do with team performance.

The researchers placed nearly 700 people into groups of between two and five, then gave them problems to solve, such as visual puzzles, games, negotiations, and logical analysis. Here's what they found:

  • Individual smarts doesn't affect performance. The average intelligence of team members wasn't related to team performance. So if you've got a team that's struggling, putting a couple of really smart people on it isn't going to help.
  • EQ--emotional intelligence-- is more important than IQ. Good communication and good coordination make teams function well. To get that, you need people who are good at reading and responding to other peoples' emotions. Teams that included even one person with superior skills in this regard had better performance.
  • A 'strong' personality hurts performance. Groups where one person dominated the conversation or the decision-making, or where people didn't do as well taking turns, had worse performance. This correlates well with other research that shows 'stronger' leaders are often less effective than those who perceive themselves to be less powerful.
The Key to Creating "Emotionally Intelligent" Teams

The researchers found one fairly simple answer: Add women.

Women are often perceived to be more socially sensitive, and more communally-minded, than men. To the extent that's true, it's easy to see how it could be helpful in a team context. And in the experiments, the researchers found that teams that included women were more socially-sensitive, and better performing, than then all-male teams. (No word on the performance of all-female teams. I've reached out to the researchers about that, and will update if I hear back.)

In business, it's not always easy to change the composition of a team, and just because a team is all-male shouldn't give it license to be socially inept. Writing for Psychology Today, Heidi Grant Halvorson suggests a number of ways any team can become more socially aware, and therefore, higher performing:

Create opportunities for team members to express their feelings, and for others to respond to them. Encourage face-time whenever possible (emotions are difficult to read on the phone, and nearly impossible over email). Cultivating a work environment where team members' experiences are acknowledged and understood will create teams that are smarter, happier, and far more successful.
I don't know how the 'express your feelings' bit would have gone over at some of the places I've worked--although if "creating opportunities to express feelings" simply means putting an end to some of the macho teasing I've seen, I'm all for it. But as the researchers found, you don't have to break out the hankies to reap the benefits of social sensitivity. Just try taking turns.

What do you think makes teams function well? Or not?

Is a Co-Worker Undermining Your Work? Blame the Boss, Study Says

Why does a seemingly 'normal' employee sabotage the work of his or her co-workers? New research from the University of Minnesota, the University of British Columbia, Clemson University and Georgia State University suggests that managers have a bigger role to play in getting everyone to 'play nice' than you might expect. The researchers found that envy alone isn't enough to get one employee to undermine another. Instead, it's a combination of envy and a sense of being 'out of the loop' that does the trick--and managers can surely do something about the latter.

The researchers conducted two studies to figure out when employees were most likely to sabotage each other.

Bad behavior in hospitals and on campus
In the first experiment, researchers conducted two surveys of 160 workers at an American hospital. The first survey asked about the workers' perceptions of envy, their connections with their colleagues, and their comfort level with acts that might be considered subversive. The second survey, taken eight months later, asked about specific things the workers might have done to make life more difficult for their colleagues. The results:

  • Envy isn't enough. Connections matter. People who felt envious were significantly more likely to act on those feelings when their relationships with their co-workers were weak.
  • Strong connections reduce sabotage. Those who felt envious but who had strong relationships with their co-workers were less likely to undermine other employees.
The second experiment was similar, but used 247 business school students as participants. The students are divided into work groups for the year, and these workgroups often become quite close. During a single semester, they answered a series of surveys designed to determine how close they were to the other students in their workgroup, how envious they were of others, and if they had done anything to sabotage other students in their group. The results:
  • Workplace culture is important. The researchers found that some workgroups were relatively tolerant of students who sabotaged others, while others didn't permit it. Not surprisingly, those workgroups that seemed to sanction sabotage saw a whole lot more of it. But someone who didn't feel any envy was extremely unlikely to sabotage someone else, even if they were disconnected from the group and the group turned a blind eye to bad behavior.
Karl Aquino, one of the study's co-authors and a professor at UBC Sauder School of Business, says that weak connections with one's co-workers can easily foster so-called 'moral disengagement:'
We often hear that people who feel envious of their colleagues try to bring them down by spreading negative rumors, withholding useful information, or secretly sabotaging their work... The match is not struck unless employees experience what psychologists call 'moral disengagement'-a way of thinking that allows people to rationalize or justify harming others.
The paper, titled A Social Context Model of Envy and Social Undermining, will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

Has a co-worker ever sabotaged or undermined your work? To what extent do you think your boss or your company's culture was played a role?

Ukranian Model Valeria Lukyanova Lovely New Pictures