Saturday, July 02, 2011

Should you hire more women for your teams?

Should you hire more women for the teams within your organization? You might think so after reading an article in the June 2011 Harvard Business Review. It's an interview with the authors of some research that came out last year in Science. In fact this hiring strategy has even been suggested based on this research.

But let's take a deeper look.

The takeaways from the HBR article (and the published study) suggest:

- there is a "collective intelligence" factor (c) that is related to team success

- this (c) factor out-predicts team success compared to the average team intelligence score, the highest intelligence score among the team members, or other logical factors such as group cohesion and satisfaction

- the (c) factor is primarily related to the average social sensitivity of the team members, the equality of distribution of turn-taking during team conversation, and...(drumroll please) the proportion of females in the group

In the studies, the authors had nearly 700 individuals (one assumes students? the subjects aren't described) participate in teams of two to five on a variety of tasks, such as completing puzzles, brainstorming, and negotiating. At the end of the session they had them complete the criterion task--in the first study a video game of checkers against a computer opponent, in the second, an architectural design task.

So what did they find? As Kai Ryssdal would say, let's do the numbers:

- There did seem to be some general factor that predicted a significant amount of variance in the criteria (43% and 44% respectively).

- (c) seems to be related, at least to a small amount, with both average individual intelligence (r=.15) and maximum member intelligence (r=.19), but the authors stress higher correlations with average social sensitivity of group members (r=.26), variance in the number of speaking turns (r=-.41), and proportion of females in a group (r=.23), although the latter was largely a result of the women scoring much higher on the measure of social sensitivity, which the authors stress came out on top in terms of unique prediction power.

- the instrument used to measure social sensitivity, the "Reading the mind in the eyes" test, has subjects identify the emotion being displayed by a set of eyes (reminiscent of some emotional intelligence tests I've seen). It would be interesting to see how well other measures of social sensitivity (e.g., body language, tone of voice) predicted team decision making, and tie this with other research that has shown emotional intelligence measures predicting team performance.

- The standardized regression coefficients (betas) for (c) were .51 and .36 for the two criteria, substantially above average member intelligence (.08, .05) and maximum member intelligence (.01, .12).

- (c)'s relationship with performance on the various tasks in Study 1 varied pretty widely, from .38 to .86. This, combined with the differential prediction of the criteria, suggests (c) as conceptualized may be more useful for predicting performance on certain group tasks. It's worth noting that the lowest correlation was with brainstorming--a task that requires less team interaction.

- The authors do not say what instrument was used to measure individual intelligence. This may or may not matter.

There are some important lessons here:

1. As is often the case, the farther we get from the actual publication, the more important it is to view the interpretation with caution. In this case, I believe some writers have over-emphasized and over-played the "flashy" result (more women on team -> better decisions) and failed to consider things like effect sizes or relationships among variables. What I'm more interested in is why the women scored higher.

2. From this research the concept of a collective intelligence factor does seem promising (and has been the subject of other recent popular publications). In reality this line of research is old as well as thriving, and includes such well-researched concepts as groupthink as well as several lines of research around what makes an effective team.

3. It is important to remember that job performance is multi-faceted. We know this from (among other things) previous research that has shown intelligence tests do a better job predicting task performance than contextual performance, where non-cognitive tests are at their best (this fact has interesting implications for the study that is the subject of this post). The results of this study remind us to carefully consider what behaviors we're hiring for.

4. It's studies like this that, when improperly analyzed, muddy the waters of our profession. Using this research to say you should hire more women is like saying you should hire more Whites than Blacks because they tend to score higher on intelligence tests. Aside from the obvious discriminatory intent, this is just plain bad decision making: it over-emphasizes differences at the group level and assumes that you have clear evidence that intelligence tests are highly correlated with performance in the job you are hiring for (and similarly valid tests with smaller mean group differences are unavailable).

I have to give the authors credit for going beyond gender as a causal factor in predicting team performance and looking for root relationships, and for not leaping to conclusions like organizations should hire more women, but instead focusing our attention on the implications for team development (they suggest electronic collaboration tools may increase collective intelligence).

This type of press is great for getting us to talk more about what matters. Let's just make sure when we do so we start with the research and consider all the important angles.


Pitch Black said...

When I read the article first question came to my mind that whether any all-women team has also been studied for sort term and long term success factors? As rightly pointed out by you it is about display of appropriate social skills rather than on gender.

How ever I will give benefit of doubt to author that having even one woman brings civility in all men's team.

Paul waywood said...

This is a well written post i do agree that gender should not come into play when developing teams it’s the different skills each member possesses