What Makes Teams Smart? (Hint: Women)

New research reported in the New York Times shows that one of the most important characteristics of effective, or smart, teams is that they include a lot of women—not just equal numbers, but actually more women than men as team members. This is more proof that organizations need more women at all levels and in all functions because most decisions of consequence, in every type of organization, are made by teams or groups. The authors of this new study, Anita Woolley, Thomas W. Malone, and Christopher Chabris, report being surprised to find that the smartest teams had three characteristics in common:

  1. The members contributed equally and were not dominated by one or two members.
  2. The members individually scored high on a test that showed skill at reading complex emotional states in the eyes of others. Even in virtual teams, where people could not see each other’s faces, the researchers reported that smart team members scored high in theory of mind, or “the ability to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know, and believe.”
  3. The teams with more women outperformed teams with more men.
These findings make sense in the context of previous research showing that differences in gender socialization result in different patterns of strength in women and men. Early feminist scholar Carol Gilligan found that women more often develop and utilize an ethic of care, or concern for others, when making decisions, while men more often develop an ethic of justice, or concern about fairness. Another early scholar, Jean Baker Miller, wrote about the centrality of relationship, or self-in-relation theory, in the identity development of girls. Her work evolved into relational cultural theory, summarized by Judith Jordan, which celebrated women’s relational skills and also looked at the intersections of gender with race, sexual orientation, class, and other dimensions of difference and power. All of this is to say that it makes sense that having more women on a team will give the team greater capacity to tune into each other—to listen, empathize, and collaborate to draw out the wisdom of a group to make the best decisions. Unfortunately, recent studies also show, as I have previously reported, that women have a hard time getting their ideas heard in many teams, especially when women are in the minority. If you are collecting information to build a case for hiring and promoting more women in your organization, be sure to add this new study to your file, and share it with your boss and coworkers. Changing the gender balance on teams by adding more women can produce better results for the organization. This new study, along with several others that I have written about previously, can help us chip away at persistent negative stereotypes and unconscious gender biases that create barriers for us. Have you seen the benefits of having many women on a team—or the consequences of not having enough women? Please share your experiences.]]>

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