MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

Social perception in the workplace makes organizations smarter

Job candidates are familiar with being tested during the interview process. True, some interview processes are simply a series of meetings with company personnel, but, in all honesty, that type of candidate screening is largely subjective. Some organizations, or departments within organizations, add empirical skills tests into the mix. Highly advanced organizations may even ask candidates to take personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

At first glance, organizations may view personality testing as something only large organizations do, or something that is too advanced or complex to manage. After all, if any particular candidate demonstrates the hard skills and "feels" like a good fit, does his or her personality traits matter that much? For those organizations looking to capitalize on collective intelligence, those traits do matter—and research shows they are extremely important.

Tom Malone

Collective intelligence, as explained by Thomas Malone, Professor of Information Technology and Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence (CCI), is the idea that people working in teams can achieve more than they can on their own. Add the power of computing and you have the potential for a highly intelligent, highly productive group.

What makes some groups more intelligent than others?

In his research, Malone examined what makes a group smart. At the highest level Malone found three commonalities to highly intelligent teams: 1) The proportion of females in the group; 2) The equality of participating in the conversation; and 3) The social perceptiveness of each of the members.

CCI's most provocative finding so far, by and large, is #1--the higher the proportion of women on a team, the more likely it is to exhibit collective intelligence (and thus achieve its goals). The critical factor appears to be social perception--women are, on average, more perceptive than men about their colleagues. You can learn more about why women make teams smarter in this video interview with Malone.

Social perceptiveness is a kind of social intelligence; it’s the ability to discern what someone is thinking through some means of human observation, especially if they are good at reading emotions from other people's eyes. Malone's research suggests that the performance of teams (and companies) can be dramatically improved when members have/can improve upon this skill, regardless of the industry.

In his recent webinar, Building Better Organizations with Collective Intelligence, Malone shares how collective intelligence has impacted many technical projects for TopCoder, CrowdForge, Amazon Mechanical Turk, and even the creation of the Linux operating system.

Testing for social perceptiveness

In his original studies, the average social perceptiveness of group members was measured by a test called "Reading the mind in the eyes" in which participants looked at pictures of other people's faces and tried to guess their emotions. When people in a group were good at reading faces, the group on average was more collectively intelligent.

In his current work, Malone and his colleagues extended that prior study to online groups. They used a similar measure of collective intelligence, but with both face-to-face and online groups. In the online groups, the participants could only communicate through text chat. They couldn’t see or talk to each other.

"The surprising finding in our new work was that the average social perceptiveness of group members was equally predictive of collective intelligence in both face-to-face and online groups," says Malone. "So having people in groups with a high level of social intelligence is just as helpful whether the group meets in person or electronically." He notes that this result is surprising as the study measured people's ability to read emotions in the eyes, yet the online groups weren't able to see each other's faces.

"The test must be tapping into a much broader set of skills than originally thought. It seems to tap into the ability to have accurate theories about what is going on in other people's minds. People who are good at reading emotion in the eyes also seem to be good at reading emotion in texts and imagining what is going on in others' minds even though they only see typing." (Read the full paper, "Reading the Mind in the Eyes or Reading between the Lines? Theory of Mind Predicts Collective Intelligence Equally Well Online and Face-To-Face.")

"Interpersonal skills have always been important in working successfully in groups within organizations," says Malone, "but these findings indicate they will continue to be important--perhaps even more important--in the electronically connected future."

If your organization is looking to increase the collective intelligence of teams or departments, maybe it’s time to examine how you screen and test candidates. Maybe you should include evaluating their social perceptiveness, along with their hard skills, experience, and work history.

Thomas Malone is the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management, Professor of Information Technology at MIT Sloan and Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.


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