Need Better Ideas? Ask More Women

April 12, 2015
David Burkus

There’s an old adage that behind every great man is a great(er) woman. It turns out that the same could be said for great teams. Evidence suggests that the number of women on a given team influences that team's ability to solve complex problems. The researchers, led by Anita Williams Wooley of Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, were initially examining the concept of collective intelligence—the idea that effective groups tap into a separate intelligence that is different from merely the average of the individual intelligence of team members.

The team administered IQ tests to nearly 700 participants and then randomized them into groups of various sizes (between two and five members). Each of the 192 groups worked together on various tasks, ranging from negotiations to visual puzzles to complex problem-solving assignments. Almost all of the assignments required some element of creative thinking. When running the numbers, the researchers found that there was little correlation between the average intelligence of a team and its performance on these tasks. In addition, group cohesion, motivation, and satisfaction weren’t correlated with collective intelligence. Most of the expected predictors of team performance failed to correlate with actual collective intelligence. When they dug deeper into what explained performance, however, they discovered a few surprising predictors.

The first was that groups that took turns more frequently in discussions tended to perform better. The teams that shared information more freely and kept one or two individuals from dominating the process scored better across the board.

The second was that higher performance was found in teams with higher social sensitivity—how much individual members paid attention to other members and asked questions instead of assuming opinions or compliance.

The final finding was that the more women on the team, the smarter it was.

The commonly held belief is that teams that are the most diverse tend to perform better. This research, however, implies the more women, the better. While the initial study wasn’t designed to examine any gender effects, the correlation between number of women and performance was significant and has since been replicated in two other studies. One possible explanation is that the number of women is also predictive of the level of social sensitivity, the first predictor of team performance. In general, women on teams tend to ask questions more often and allow for a more collective discussion. Many studies show that women score more highly than men in social sensitivity.

If you’re having trouble solving difficult problems with your team and feel like nothing is working, take a look around. Do you have enough women?

More From David Burkus

How Thinking About Others Improves Our Creativity

Why Innovation Needs Outsiders

Brainstorming is Dead: Long Live Brainstorming

David Burkus is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas. He is also founder of LDRLB and assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University.

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