While there are a growing number of articles being published these days on organizational effectiveness, leadership and gender, one recent article in the New York Times stood out to me. In “Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others,” Anita Woolley, Thomas W Malone and Christopher F. Chabris present some interesting new research that proves what many of us have long known: Teams need much more than traditional intelligence alone to be successful.
They need to be able to tap into their collective intelligence and create outcomes that demonstrate a result far surpassing individual contributions or average IQ. To sustain high performance, teams need to be inclusive and exercise elevated levels of Emotional Intelligence, or EQ. They also need to have more women!
Specifically, these researchers point to three critical ingredients for long-term team effectiveness: an equal contribution among members to team discussions, an ability to “mindread” or “to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe,” and a higher number of women than men. This last ingredient is explained in part by the fact that women are better able to mindread than men.
I’m all for increasing female participation on teams. Having better participation of women is particularly important for teams at the mid-level and above, and especially at senior levels given the dearth of female representation at the top.
However, while I enjoy reading anything that highlights the critical need to include more women on teams and their unique contributions, my spine stiffens a bit at the potential for unintended consequences. After all, the implications of this research suggest that it would be beneficial to include one group at the expense of another. In this case, saying that teams perform better when there are more women than men. Rather than taking actions to swing the pendulum (unequally) in the other direction, this research instead presents the opportunity to go deeper.
It’s not simply about having more women, but asking why the women and men on these teams perform the way they do. This is a more complex question of socialization. In order to understand this issue, we need to first understand that “mindreading” it is not a fundamental or unchangeable skill. And it’s certainly not the dominion of women alone.
While women, on average, may display an ability to better intuit and understand what others are thinking and feeling than men, this is not a fixed attribute. It’s a matter of conditioning and reinforcement. Girls and women are rewarded for using these skills and honing them, essentially from birth, whereas boys and men are often socialized to stop connecting with their innate ability to sense and pick up on emotional cues or demonstrate empathy overtly.
Even so, not all women are deeply empathetic just as not all men have trouble mindreading. In our own lives, it’s probably easy for most of us to think of one or several women and men who buck the trend.
The point being: while it may be more apparent for some of us, everyone possesses the ability to be empathetic and read the room. Though this skill appears to be better utilized by women, men can develop and hone this skill as well, enabling all teams to be more effective.
So while we need to keep working to ensure that women have equal opportunities to reach every level of leadership and participation, let’s make sure that there’s still room for everyone to have a seat at the table.