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Build Yourself a Smarter Meeting

January 23, 2015

 

Teamwork is at the very heart of our idea of modern life. From sports to business, it's thought to be the bedrock of success. (Look at any motivational poster.)

 

While we may pay homage to the legend of the lone genius, the concept of the sum being greater than its parts still holds a special sway. This assumption is pretty obvious: just count the number of meeting requests on your calendar.

 

If it's all about collaboration, why do so many meetings seem to curse you to a Sisyphean struggle, perpetually weighed down by brain-deadening hours trapped at conference tables, cursing your very existence?

 

Or, put more constructively, if you were going to break out of the mold and build your "dream team" business meeting, what types of people should you look for? Would you be on the hunt for introverts or extroverts, analytical folks or people of exceptional IQ? Does gender matter?

 

In a New York Times piece called "Why Some Teams are Smarter Than Others", the authors cite the work of Alex Pentland and Nada Hashmi of M.I.T. In 2010, the researchers conducted numerous experiments on a total of 697 people. What they discovered may surprise you.

 

When it comes to effectiveness in groups, the number of introverts or extroverts had little sway on results.

 

What made the difference? Theory of mind.

 

Theory of mind is the ability to intuit what another person might be thinking or feeling. For instance, better communicators, and according to Pentland and Hashmi, better team members, tend to be pros at interpreting body language.

 

What about conducting business online? Surprisingly, theory of mind made a difference here, too. It's more than being able to tell a fake smile from a real one; it's the ability to pick up on a host of subtle cues (word choice, response time, applied understanding of human nature) to simulate for yourself the experience of being another person.

 

You might think brainpower would be the X factor. But the smartest teams were not necessarily the ones with the highest combined IQs. Instead, the best work was done by groups that stressed equal participation, and didn't let one or two people dominate the discussion.

 

As far as gender went, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Generally speaking, the greater the number of women, the better the output.

 

Why? Evidence suggests women may tend to be more versed in theory of mind. In some studies, women score better on reading facial cues, possibly conditioned by years of encouragement to be "nice", i.e. prioritizing the feelings of others over personal needs or glories.

 

So the next time you're putting your dream team together, remember to load up with women who are willing to share the limelight, and consider that being exceptionally smart doesn't make you a superstar in the board room.

 

When it comes to an effective meeting, the alpha dog might just find himself running in the back of the pack.

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