I’ve been blogging about MIT’s fascinating research on team effectiveness for years, including about: a study by the Human Dynamics Laboratory on team communication patterns correlated with performance metrics; the implications for virtual team building; and the implications for policies prohibiting telecommuting programs.  Now MIT has some new studies that link not only communication patterns but also emotional intelligence to team effectiveness.

Here’s the skinny.  Researchers put people in groups and gave them various tasks involving logical analysis, planning, brainstorming and other tests to measure their intelligence.  They found little correlation between the collective intelligence of the group and the average individual IQ of each member.  Where they did find a significant positive correlation is in three areas:

1.  How equally the members of the group communicate with each other rather than one or two people dominating the conversation (this is the part we already knew from the previous study).

2.  Individual’s performance on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures people’s ability to recognize complex emotional states in others.  We sort of knew this already too, from the measures of “energy” in communication patters in the previous study, which was defined by the number of face-to-face conversations that happened as opposed to phone or electronic communication.

3.  Having more women in the group, which can be explained at least in part by the fact that women performed better than men on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test.

Now here’s the interesting part.  Researchers wanted to know if the findings would replicate with virtual teams communicating primarily by electronic means.  Common sense tells us they wouldn’t, because of the lack of face-to-face communication.  But they did.  Why?  Because “…the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test measures a deeper, domain-independent aspect of social reasoning, not merely the ability to recognize facial expressions of mental states.”  In other words, team members who have the ability to reason about the mental states of others—who acknowledge, consider and keep track of what their teammates feel, know and believe—show similar high scores on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test.  And teams with higher scores on that test showed higher collective intelligence in the form of better task execution.

This would seem to contradict the earlier finding that teams with more face-to-face communication performed at a higher level.  But the first set of studies measured actual performance metrics for real teams, while the latter studies measured the intelligence of a group.  Perhaps what this means is that virtual teams have just as much potential as co-located ones, but we are not figuring out how to harness it by teaching aspects of emotional intelligence.  The component of EQ known as empathy is clearly a key skill to learn and practice for teams aspiring to high performance.

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