The Secret to Great Teams

Loved this Hidden Brain episode on the secret to great teams, an interview with Anita Woolley at Carnegie Mellon.

Some highlights:

  • Groups have a collective intelligence. They are non-linear, “Complex Adaptive Systems” that involve the competence of individual members as well as the interaction between them. Different systems are better suited to different tasks.

  • There is a consistent ability for certain teams to work well across all different task types (and vice versa).

  • Individual intelligence didn’t have much of a relationship with the collective intelligence of the team. Personality types don’t have any correlation, either. Neuroticism could show up as a negative correlate of collective intelligence but it wasn’t very strong or consistent.

  • Cohesion isn’t a correlate of collective intelligence. Not all great teams enjoy each other’s company beyond the tasks required. (This is one of my favorites because I’ve been fascinated by how much the members of Monty Python disliked each other outside of work and yet they were one of the best comedy groups in history - whose individual work was less interesting than their teamwork).

  • The more women on the team, the more the collective intelligence of the team. Having teams entirely composed of women aren’t necessarily the best teams; instead, there’s a curvilinear effect. Majority female but gender diverse is best.

  • A reason for women resulting in better collective intelligence of the team could be that women have more social perceptiveness. Social Perceptiveness is a capability that individuals possess to pick up on subtle cues and draw inferences about what others are thinking or feeling. In teamwork this helps them to anticipate how others might react and use this to facilitate communication and coordination (and collaboration) of the group. Effective groups pay attention to one another and social perceptiveness is a marker for collective intelligence and group performance.

  • Teams with higher collective intelligence are not dominated by a single individual; there is roughly equal involvement in the group’s collaboration.

  • Video conferencing is less effective than audio meetings (without video). Video disrupts synchrony and sentiment - people were distracted. It led to more unequal contribution to the conversation and more likely for people to dominate.

  • The person with the lowest scoring social perceptiveness will set the bar for the group and bring down the collective intelligence. They cause significant disruption that forces the team to compensate.

  • Transactive Memory - teammates memorize different areas of a shared experience to build up a more complete story or memory map of a situation. The more effective teams (subconsciously, even) fall into a pattern of coordinating and expanding the amount of information that they can collectively manage. The best teams create more effective transactive memory systems.

  • Does fresh blood enhance the team (the effectiveness of turnover vs stability)? Lower turnover is ideal for well-performing teams in the first five years because teams get better performing during that time. They build shared components of the system; it’s important to learn how to do things together. Bringing in new people can be disruptive to the process, particularly too early in the team’s formation. You don’t want to disrupt the beneficial processes.

  • What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What do we think we are trying to accomplish? Is this really the best way to accomplish that? These are the questions that collectively intelligent teams often ask themselves.


I listened to this yesterday D - at your urging; you did a terrific job summarizing the key takeaways. I agree with a lot of what was discussed. In my own experience, the best teams are definitely balanced in terms of gender, experience, perspectives, and areas of expertise. However, some of the things I’ve noticed in my own case is the high level of productivity (and camaraderie!) I’ve experienced with bright, creative, open-minded individuals who have high degrees of emotional IQ and a shared vision; even corporate culture affiniity in terms of alignment with the company’s mission and values. When there’s shared intention and commitment, there’s a desire to engage, lean-in and co-create with much greater outcomes. My two cents!

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