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January 27, 2015 Practice Points

Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others

By Mellori E. Lumpkin

Anyone who has ever served on a dysfunctional committee or a board of directors that regularly holds less-than-efficient meetings is aware that there can be immense difficulty in working together to make decisions in a group. However, in a recent review of their study addressing “Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others,” published in the New York Times, Anita Woolley, Thomas W. Malone, and Christopher Chabris identify the three characteristics that distinguish the smartest teams.

First, members of the smartest teams “contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group.” Second, these members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures the ability of people to read complex emotional states from other persons. Finally, teams with more women performed better than teams with more men. However, it was not “diversity” or having equal numbers of men and women that mattered in establishing the smartest teams, but simply having more women. This last effect was primarily explained by the fact that women were typically better at reading complex emotional states than men.

Additionally, at a time when teamwork has become more mobile and groups have taken their collaboration efforts online through the use of tools like Skype, Google Drive, and email, these same three characteristics matter just as much in creating the smartest teams. Perhaps most interesting, “emotion-reading mattered just as much for the online teams whose members could not see one another as for the teams that worked face to face.” Smart teams have the ability to not just read facial expressions in determining emotional states, but to also consider and remember how other people feel, know, and believe.

As teams are tasked with the responsibility of solving a variety of problems and issues in our society, “understanding what makes groups smart will help organizations and leaders in all fields create and manage teams more effectively."

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, teams, characteristics, committees, management

Mellori E. Lumpkin works at Holland & Knight in Atlanta, Georgia

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