Why Smart People Make Lousy Teams

By Kimberly Weisul | April 11, 2011

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' means just 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 get reap the benefits of social sensitivity. Just try taking turns.

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