Blog Team Coaching

What makes a team “collectively intelligent”?

Written by Neela B

The power of teams

Back in 2012, Google established Project Aristotle. The idea was to study hundreds of the company’s different teams with a view to understanding why some of them were highly successful and others failed. But whatever aspect of a team’s composition the project’s researchers considered – personality types, social interactions, technical expertise – they struggled to find any pattern, any kind of ingredient X that correlated with the success of a particular team.

That was until they made a connection with research that had been undertaken into the idea of ‘psychological safety ‘ and the work by a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union College on the concept of ‘collective intelligence’.

Put simply, the term ‘psychological safety ‘ refers to a group culture within which individual team members feel confident that any contribution they make will be considered seriously, that they won’t suffer adverse consequences for speaking up. And, as further research has indicated, this psychological safety culture has the effect of raising a team’s collective intelligence to the point where it can outperform those teams whose members have the highest individual IQs.

For the members of Project Aristotle, this was the key to making sense of their findings. Whilst, on the face of it, neither successful teams nor failing teams appeared to have any definable characteristics, in fact they did. The prevalence, or otherwise, of a psychological safety culture and a consequent higher collective intelligence.

In short, teams that exhibit high levels of mutual empathy and foster equality of contribution – regardless of what other characteristics they might exhibit – perform better.

About the author

Neela B