Engineering 101

Composition, Structure, Gender Influence Teams Working Together

Working together across a range of tasks, called collective intelligence (CI), varies significantly between teams. The level of collective attention a team develops influences its level of CI. A new study examined the factors that enhanced collective attention, focusing on the influence of hierarchy and gender composition.

Using algorithms to analyze speaking patterns, researchers found that teams with a stable hierarchy exhibited more cooperative, synchronous speaking patterns. In contrast, groups with an unstable hierarchy or unspecified hierarchy showed more competitive, interruptive speaking patterns. Whether cooperative or interruptive speaking patterns were associated with greater levels of CI depended on the teams’ gender composition. The study, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Johns Hopkins University, Northeastern University, and Korea University, is published in Organization Science.

CI has been shown to predict performance in many contexts, including teams working in consulting, the military, software development, and online games.

The researchers recruited 600 individuals from a mid-Atlantic U.S. university’s research participant pool for a two-hour study on group behavior. They assigned participants to work in approximately 150 stable, unstable, or unspecified hierarchical teams with varied gender compositions in each unit. They then examined how team structure led to different behavioral manifestations of collective attention, as seen in verbal communication patterns.

In some teams, members voted for a leader, then were told that the leader would continue in that role for the duration of the study or that the group would be able to vote the leader out at a later part of the study; some teams did not vote for a leader. The teams then completed a CI test. Participants wore microphones to capture their communication, and then the researchers applied novel analytic techniques using algorithms to capture interactional synchrony and competitive interruptions.

Teams with a stable hierarchy displayed more cooperative speaking patterns, with team members speaking in coordinated ways. In contrast, groups with an unstable hierarchy or no specified hierarchy exhibited more competitive speaking patterns, with individuals more likely to interrupt others.

The effect of these cooperative and competitive speaking patterns on CI depended on the gender composition of the teams: Majority-female teams had higher CI when their speaking patterns were more cooperative and synchronous. In comparison, all-male teams had higher CI when their speaking patterns were more competitive and featured more interruptions.

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