Smart Teams Level The Playing Field

Thomas Malone heads MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence. Across a series of well-documented experiments, he demonstrated a couple of years ago that the ‘smartest’ teams (defined as those who could successfully complete a number of short tasks) rely upon the following characteristics:

  • An equal contribution by all team members

  • Team members scoring high on a test called ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ which assesses an individual’s ability to read social dynamics (test available here); and

  • A large number of women, with teams with more women outperforming those with more men (which may be related amongst other things to women’s advanced mindreading capabilities - see previous point)

A number of alternative studies establish a link between the inclusion of women in leadership positions and financial performance, including McKinsey (2015), Deszo & Ross (2012) and the American Sociological Association (2009), although some may find the macro approach used in these reports less compelling. One of the general conclusions, though, is that homogenous teams foster a sense of effectiveness and comfort, but score low on intelligence and creativity.


According to Catalyst, a non-profit organization, women hold only 24% of senior roles across the world today. The trend has been towards more diversity, but at the current rate of change, women will not reach parity before 2060. In its 2016 ‘Women in the workplace’ report, McKinsey shows that whilst women represent 46% of the employee population at the entry level in the US, that ratio systematically drops at every hierarchical level to reach 19% at the C-level. There are many sources of stats and they all say the same thing: An essential source of talent for a better, more productive corporate world is acutely missing.

Over the last few years, a significant body of research has focused on unconscious gender bias as one of the remaining obstacles for women in organizations. In its 2015 report, Mc Kinsey identified four of them. It should be noted that both men and women have these biases. They are all deemed to be influential when evaluating an individual’s leadership potential:

  • A likeability bias: Success and likability are positively correlated for men but negatively correlated for women. Consequently the same actions by men and women are perceived differently. This is famously established by the Howard/Heidi Roizen test where the résumé of an assertive individual is given a totally different appreciation by students whether it is presented as being that of a man (Howard is likable) or woman (Heidi is not)

  • A performance evaluation bias: Male performance is often overestimated compared with female performance, especially in domains traditionally dominated by men. This may explain why women tend to be hired and promoted based on their accomplishments (backward looking) whilst men tend to be hired and promoted based on their potential (forward looking)

  • A performance attribution bias: Women are given comparatively less credit for successful outcomes and are more blamed for failure. This is partly driven by the fact that women are more likely to attribute their success to external factors (luck, help from others) than men. Because they receive less credit – and give themselves less credit – women’s confidence erodes over time, thereby creating a ‘confidence gap’ versus men and they put themselves forward less easily

  • A maternity bias: women are assumed to have their first priority with the (existing or future) family at the expense of their professional career

Awareness campaigns and corporate trainings have sought to correct these biases. But they have proven to be insufficient to fundamentally rebalance the dynamics between men and women as employees do not know how to deal with the newly found awareness. Worse, some of these initiatives backfired: As the biases may get interpreted as a natural phenomenon, the motivation to deal with them declines.


Further readings reminded me of the enormous complexity of the issue. Needless to say, I am not qualified to find the answer to unconscious biases. Going back to Thomas Malone’s findings on ‘smart teams’ though, could part of the way forward be related to team participation?


Typically, active participation in team discussions is used by its members to assert themselves and to highlight their capabilities, which tends to be seen as an indication of leadership potential. This is a particularly tricky game for women due to the aforementioned likability and performance attribution biases. And since smart teams require equal participation, that approach is unproductive, if not counter-productive. Therefore, changing the responsibility for equal participation – from the individual to the team and/or its leader – might create a level playing field in meeting rooms; with reduced interference from unconscious biases.

Sources (if not directly referenced through hyperlinks) and readings:

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