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This is an edited extract from The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes.

Iceland should never have made it to the Euro 2016 men’s football tournament. Four years previously, they were ranked 131st in the world. Yet they knocked out the Netherlands in the qualifiers, and then as the smallest nation ever to reach the championships, drew with Portugal and Hungary, and then took down Austria. But their biggest scalp was England, a team packed with star names. So how did they do it – and what lessons can be learned from their unexpected success?

Many organisations employ highly intelligent, qualified people in the assumption that they will automatically combine their collective brainpower to produce magical results. Yet such groups often fail to cash in on their talents, with poor creativity, lost efficiency and sometimes overly risky decision making. And exactly the same dynamics that brought Iceland their victory, and England their defeat, can help us to understand why.

Let’s first consider some more general intuitions about group thinking.

One popular idea has been the “wisdom of the crowd” – the idea that many brains, working together, can correct for each other’s errors in judgements; we make each other better.

Some good evidence of this view comes from an analysis of scientists’ journal articles, which finds that collaborative efforts are far more likely to be cited and applied than papers with just one author. Contrary to the notion of a lone genius, conversations and the exchange of ideas bring out the best in the team members; their combined brainpower allows them to see connections that had been invisible previously.

There are also plenty of notorious examples where team thinking fails, sometimes at great cost

Yet there are also plenty of notorious examples where team thinking fails, sometimes at great cost. Opposing voices point to the phenomenon of ‘groupthink’, first described in detail by the Yale University psychologist Irving Janis. Inspired by the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961, he explored the reasons why the Kennedy administration decided to invade Cuba. He concluded that Kennedy’s advisors had been too eager to reach a consensus decision and too anxious about questioning each other’s judgements. Instead, they reinforced their existing biases.

Sceptics of collective reasoning may also point to the many times that groups simply fail to agree on any decision at all, reaching an impasse, or they may overly complicate a problem by incorporating all the points of view. This impasse is really the opposite of the more single-minded groupthink, but it can nonetheless be very damaging for a team’s productivity. You want to avoid “design by committee”.

The term ‘groupthink’ was inspired by the decisions that led to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion (Credit: Getty Images)

Testing group intelligence

The latest research helps us to reconcile all these views, offering some clever new tools to determine whether or not a group of talented people can tap into their combined ability.

Anita Williams Woolley has been at the forefront of these new findings, with the invention of a ‘collective intelligence’ test that promises to revolutionise our understanding of group dynamics.

Designing the test was a Herculean task. One of the biggest challenges was designing a test that captured the full range of thinking that a group has to engage with: brainstorming, for instance, involves a kind of ‘divergent’ thinking that is very different from the more restrained, critical thinking you may need to come to a decision.

Brainstorming involves a kind of ‘divergent’ thinking that is very different from the more restrained, critical thinking you may need to come to a decision

Her team eventually settled on a five-hour battery of tasks that together tested four different kinds of thinking: generating new ideas; choosing a solution based on sound judgement; negotiating to reach compromise; and finally, general ability at task execution (such as coordinating movements and activities).

Unlike an individual intelligence test, many of the tasks were practical in nature. In a test of negotiation skills, for instance, the groups had to imagine that they were housemates sharing a car on a trip into town, each with a list of groceries – and they had to plan their trip to get the best bargains with the least driving time. In a test of moral reasoning, meanwhile, the subjects played the role of a jury, describing how they would judge a basketball player who had bribed his instructor.

And to test their overall execution, the team members were each sat in front of a separate computer and asked to enter words into a shared online document – a deceptively simple challenge that tested how well they could coordinate their activities. The participants were also asked to perform some verbal or abstract reasoning tasks that might be included in a traditional IQ test – but they answered as a group, rather than individually.

A team of high-IQ people doesn’t necessarily mean the group will have high collective intelligence. Team members’ social sensitivity is a better predictor (Credit: Getty Images)

The first exciting finding was that each team’s score on one of the constituent tasks correlated with its score on the other tasks. In other words, there appeared to be an underlying factor (rather like the underlying brainpower that is meant to be reflected in our general intelligence) that meant that some teams consistently performed better than others.

Crucially, a group’s success appeared to only modestly reflect the members’ average IQ. Nor could it be strongly linked to the highest IQ within the group. The teams weren’t simply relying on the smartest member to do all the thinking.

Since they published that first paper in Science in 2010, Woolley’s team has verified their test in many different contexts, showing that it can predict the success of many real-world projects. They studied students completing a two-month group project in a university management course, for instance. Sure enough, the collective intelligence score predicted the team’s performance on various assignments. Intriguingly, teams with a higher collective intelligence kept on building on their advantage during this project: not only were they better initially; they also improved the most over the eight weeks.

Woolley has also applied her test in the army, in a bank, in teams of computer programmers, and at a large financial services company, which ironically had one of the lowest collective intelligence scores she had ever come across. Disappointingly, she wasn’t asked back; a symptom, perhaps, of their poor groupthink.

Behaviours that help

The test is much more than a diagnostic tool, however. It has also allowed Woolley to investigate the underlying reasons why some teams have higher or lower collective intelligence – and the ways those dynamics might be improved.

One of the most consistent predictors is the team members’ social sensitivity. To measure this quality, Woolley used a classic measure of emotional perception, in which participants are given photos of an actor’s eyes and asked to determine what emotion that person is supposed to be feeling, with the participants’ average score strongly predicting how well they would perform on the group tasks.

The better groups tend to allow each member to participate equally; the worst groups, in contrast, tended to be dominated by just one or two people

Woolley has also probed the specific interactions that can elevate or destroy a team’s thinking. Companies may value someone who is willing to take charge when a group lacks a hierarchy, for instance – the kind of person who may think of themselves as a “natural leader”. Yet when Woolley’s team measured how often each member spoke, they found that the better groups tend to allow each member to participate equally; the worst groups, in contrast, tended to be dominated by just one or two people.

The most destructive dynamic, Woolley has found, is when team members start competing against each other. This was the problem with the financial services company and their broader corporate culture. Each year, the company would only promote a fixed number of individuals based on their performance reviews – meaning that each employee would feel threatened by the others, and group work suffered as a result.

Mansplainers, who prevent women from sharing their knowledge, sabotage group performance, Woolley found (Credit: Getty Images)

Since Woolley published those first results, her research has garnered particular interest for its insights into sexism in the workplace. The irritating habits of some men to ‘mansplain’, interrupt and appropriate women’s ideas has been noted by many commentators in recent years. By shutting down a conversation and preventing women from sharing their knowledge, those are exactly the kinds of behaviours that sabotage group performance.

Woolley has shown that – at least in her experiments in the USA – teams with a greater proportion of women have a higher collective intelligence

Sure enough, Woolley has shown that – at least in her experiments in the USA – teams with a greater proportion of women have a higher collective intelligence, and that this can be linked to their higher, overall, social sensitivity, compared to groups consisting of a larger proportion of men.

Does self-worth sabotage?

Woolley’s work provides good evidence that individual talent may matter far less than the overall group dynamics within a team. To fully understand Iceland’s success – and England’s defeat, we also need to explore how an individual’s perceptions of their own talent can influence those group dynamics and the overall collective intelligence.

Various studies have found that inflated beliefs of your own competence and power can impair your abilities to cooperate within a team. And this means that groups of high-flying individuals often fail to make good and creative decisions, despite their individual experience and talent.

An analysis of Dutch telecommunications and financial institutions, for instance, examined behaviour in teams across the companies’ hierarchies, finding that the higher up the company you go, the greater the level of conflict reported by the employees.

Crucially, this seemed to depend on the members’ own understanding of their positions in the pecking order. If the team as a whole agreed on their relative positions, they were more productive, since they avoided constant jockeying for authority. The worst groups were composed of high-status individuals who didn’t know their rank in the pecking order.

The top Wall Street banks gather lots of star players to their teams – but departments become less effective once a threshold of high performers is reached (Credit: Getty Images)

The most striking example of these powerplays – and the clearest evidence that too much talent can be counter-productive – comes from a study of ‘star’ equity analysts in Wall Street banks. Each year, Institutional Investor ranks the top analysts in each sector, offering them a kind of rock-star status among their colleagues.

These people often flock together at the same prestigious firms, but that doesn’t always bring the rewards the company might have hoped.

Teams with more star players do indeed perform better, but only up to a certain point

A study of five years’ data found that teams with more star players do indeed perform better, but only up to a certain point, after which the benefits of additional star talent tailed off. And with more than around 45% of the department filled with Institutional Investor’s picks, the departments appeared to become less effective.

We see exactly the same dynamics in many sports. The social psychologist Adam Galinsky, for instance, has examined the performance of football (soccer) teams in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. To determine the country’s ‘top talent’, they calculated how many of its squad were currently on the payroll of one of the top 30 highest-earning clubs. They then compared this value to the country’s ranking in the qualifying rounds.

In line with the study of the Wall Street analysts, Galinsky’s team found a ‘curvilinear’ relationship; a team benefited from having a few stars, but the balance seemed to tip at about 60%.

If we look back at Iceland’s unexpected victory against England, it’s clear that the quality of the individual players was undoubtedly better than it ever had been. But although many worked for international football clubs, just one of them at the time (Gylfi Sigurðsson) had a contract in one of the top-30 clubs. England, in contrast, had pulled 21 of its 23 players from these super-rich teams, far above the optimum threshold.

Heimir Hallgrímsson was one of the 2016 Iceland team’s coaches – and still worked part-time as a dentist (Credit: Getty Images)

Humble leaders

All this research provides a couple of tips that could be applied to any team to improve performance. The first is in hiring: look for people with that social sensitivity rather than simply employing the person with the best individual performance. For the group as a whole, it may turn out to be far more valuable – particularly if you already have lots of high-flying members.

The second is to ensure that the leader displays the kinds of behaviours they expect within the team. Various studies have found that traits like humility can be contagious. If the leader is willing to listen to others more constructively, rather than dominating the conversation, and admit his or her mistakes, the team as a whole can begin to nurture those dynamics that increase the overall collective intelligence.

After Iceland’s unexpected success at the Euro 2016 tournament, many commentators highlighted the down-to-earth attitude of Heimir Hallgrímsson, one of the team’s two coaches, who still worked part time as a dentist. He was apparently devoted to listening and understanding others’ points of view, and he tried to cultivate that attitude in all of his players.

“Team-building is a must for a country like ours; we can only beat the big teams by working as one,” he told the sports channel ESPN. “If you look at our team, we have guys like Gylfi Sigurðsson at Swansea [Football Club], who is probably our highest-profile player, but he’s the hardest worker on the pitch. If that guy works the hardest, who in the team can be lazy?”

David Robson is a senior journalist at BBC Future. This article is an extract from his recent book The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes.

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