On January 18th, The New York Times  published  an article entitled “Why Some Teams are Smarter than Others” that has some lessons for all of us who have the occasion to work in groups.  That means, essentially, all of us. These days almost every decision of consequence is made by a group. And what we’ve all learned is that groups of smart people can make horrible decisions — or great ones. So what is it that makes the difference?

A Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business professor, an M.I.T. Sloan School of Management professor who is also the director of the M.I.T. Center for Collective Intelligence, and a professor of psychology at Union College conducted a study published in Science in 2010 that confirmed that some groups are just smarter than others, regardless of the task before them. What makes them smarter?  A number of theories were tested. But it was NOT IQ scores or extroversion or being more motivated that mattered.  However, smarter teams did have three characteristics in common:

  1.  Teams whose members contributed more equally to discussions, rather than being dominated by a few, or “more heads are better than one.”
  2.  Teams whose members were able to read complex emotional states, a determination made based on assessments involving viewing facial images with only the eyes visible, which it turns out truly are the  windows of the (emotional) soul.
  3.  Teams who had more women members.  That’s it.  Not just some or an equal number of women members–the more women, the better. The researchers speculated that that may perhaps be as a result of characteristic 2, in that women were better able to read those elusive emotional cues.

That study was replicated with two sets of teams and those results were published last month. In the new study, one set of teams worked face-to-face as in the original study, while the other group worked only online, never speaking to or seeing each other.

Surprisingly, the same criteria came up in distinguishing the smarter teams in both groups, even among the online group–the smarter teams were more communicative, more equally participative, and had better emotion-reading skills, skills that were demonstrated even without seeing or hearing their colleagues. And they also tended to have more women.

Is there a message here for law firms and law departments on how to build smarter teams? Apart from the awesome confirmation of “the more women, the better the team decisions,” note the critical skill that being able to read emotional cues brings to the team table. Collaboration is less a matter of identifying the one person (usually the loudest) who “has the right answer” and more a matter of efficiently assembling collective information in an atmosphere that allows the group to process and evaluate it without the distortion of unrecognized or unresolved emotional factors.

Give your teams the advantage of a clear collective head, and they will bring the best results home.