Women, and The Paradoxes of Work Intelligence

The more we look into the cognitive basis of team and business performance, the more we learn about the strengths of women relative to men


One of the surprisingly unintuitive facts of the workplace is what I think of as one of the Paradoxes of Work Intelligence: adding a highly intelligent person to a team does not always increase the performance of the team, and can in fact decrease it.

The reason? It turns out that the most critical skills --- or psychological orientation --- for team competence are not the ones that are associated with individual problem solving. What makes teams work is the presence of people who are socially sensitive, who possess what is called 'theory of mind': they are adept at creating and maintaining a sense of what is on the minds of others in the group.


Teams with higher average I.Q.s didn't score much higher on our collective intelligence tasks than did teams with lower average I.Q.s. Nor did teams with more extroverted people, or teams whose members reported feeling more motivated to contribute to their group's success. --- Wooley, et al.


The research of Anita Wooley, Thomas Malone, Christopher Chabris, and various other contributors in recent years has shed light on these dynamics. In 2010, the set about to find out if there is a group 'collective intelligence' that makes teams work more effectively on solving complex problems, and they found that social sensitivity was the key.

In a recent New York Times article by Wooley, Malone, and Chabris, they wrote about their initial surprise when IQ and other attributes diverged from group effectiveness:

We next tried to define what characteristics distinguished the smarter teams from the rest, and we were a bit surprised by the answers we got. We gave each volunteer an individual I.Q. test, but teams with higher average I.Q.s didn't score much higher on our collective intelligence tasks than did teams with lower average I.Q.s. Nor did teams with more extroverted people, or teams whose members reported feeling more motivated to contribute to their group's success.

The ethnological approach --- investigating what the better teams actually did --- yielded three major differences from the other teams:

  1. There was more balance in the smartest teams discussions, with less domination of discussion by a few members.

  2. Their members scored higher on a test called 'Reading the Mind In the Eyes'. This is a measure of 'face reading', but in this case the ability to judge mental state by viewing images of eyes with the rest of the face not shown.

  3. The teams with more women outperformed the teams with more men. Full stop. This is not a support for diversity, since the effect is linear based on the number of women. This is likely because women are better at face reading --- and deeper at theory of mind --- than men are.

So, if you'd like to increase the performance of teams, add women, or, to be more precise, add people who are socially sensitive.

In a recent study, the group worked with other researchers and discovered that the same effects hold when the team is not working face to face, but remotely. As they wrote,

Half of the teams worked face to face, like the teams in our earlier studies. The other half worked online, with no ability to see any of their teammates. Online collaboration is on the rise, with tools like Skype, Google Drive and old-fashioned email enabling groups that never meet to execute complex projects. We wanted to see whether groups that worked online would still demonstrate collective intelligence, and whether social ability would matter as much when people communicated purely by typing messages into a browser.

And they did.

This again surprised the researchers. Personally, I would have expected that result, based on my experience with online relationships and long-distance work. Those who are sensitive to others' perspectives, and who work diligently to create balanced and human-centered dialogue about work, are more likely to help a team perform well, whether remote or working in close proximity.


Those who are sensitive to others' perspectives, and who work diligently to create balanced and human-centered dialogue about work, are more likely to help a team perform well, whether remote or working in close proximity.


This also strays into the area of decision making, where, again, men and women seem to have different wiring. Two cognitive neuroscientists --- Mara Mather and Nichole Lighthall --- explored how men and women make decisions about risk. Under normal conditions, men and women are fairly alike, but if you add stress they diverge. When stressed, women will decrease risk-taking, while men will increase it, seeking big wins even when the likelihood of success was decreasing and the costs of losing were high.

The key factor is how men and women react to cortisol, a hormone produced by stress: in women, it increases decision-making performance, but not so in men. According to Stephanie Reston, another cognitive neuroscientist, the men are also seemingly unaware that with increased stress their behavior became riskier.

The more we look into the cognitive basis of team and business performance, the more we learn about the strengths of women relative to men. Given that we are living in an era where stress may have become endemic, why is it that we have so few female CEOs? This is another Paradox of Work Intelligence.


Leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders, and that these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women. --- Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic


Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has a theory, which is that people mistake confidence for competence, and look for charisma in their leaders, which is seen as a proxy for leadership potential:

This is consistent with the finding that leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders, and that these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women.

[...]

The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they that are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent --- the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group.

Instead, Chamorro-Premuzic argues, we should be looking for humility in our leaders, and rejecting charismatic narcissists. Hear, hear.

Additionally, women believe that they need to have 100% of the skills necessary to take on a leadership role, while male self-confidence --- perhaps inflated --- leads guys to take leadership roles they may be unprepared for. But the top 20% of companies ranked by financial performance in a DDI study had women in 37% of leadership positions, while the bottom 20% had only 19%.

Maybe it's time to listen to the numbers, and move more women into leadership roles. Or better said, maybe we'll wise up and select leaders for humility and social sensitivity, instead of risk-taking narcissism.