The Secret Ingredient to High Performing Teams

by | Jun 5, 2019


Reading time: 5 Minutes.

A key to our species’ success has been our ability to live and work in tribes and groups. Our social cooperation and teamwork is what has given our relatively weak, slow, and hairless homo sapiens the ability to dominate our planet. We’ve evolved to work in teams. However, only more recently has science turned its focus on what makes great teams. One particular characteristic has been found to lead to team success: diversity.

Note that diversity can mean different things depending on the study. Some research focused on gender or racial diversity. Others focused on diversity of ability or intelligence. Diversity can also refer to educational background, employment experience, nationality, age range or other factors.

The Power of Diverse Teams

Research on teamwork has found that more diverse teams generally outperform teams which are more homogeneous. Diversity of background, experience and thought is essential to high performing teams.

A study from the consulting firm McKinsey found that “companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Companies in the bottom quartile in these dimensions are statistically less likely to achieve above-average returns.”

McKinsey study results. Link to Study:

For more on the benefits of female corporate leadership, see this IFOD:

Why Do Diverse Teams Outperform?

Why do diverse teams outperform? From Inc. Magazine:

The problem is that when you narrow the backgrounds, experiences and outlooks of the people on your team, you are limiting the number of solution spaces that can be explored. At best, you will come up with fewer ideas and at worst, you run the risk of creating an echo chamber where inherent biases are normalized and groupthink sets in.

From Harvard Business Review:

Diverse teams are more likely to constantly reexamine facts and remain objective. They may also encourage greater scrutiny of each member’s actions, keeping their joint cognitive resources sharp and vigilant. By breaking up workplace homogeneity, you can allow your employees to become more aware of their own potential biases — entrenched ways of thinking that can otherwise blind them to key information and even lead them to make errors in decision-making processes.

Enriching your employee pool with representatives of different genders, races, and nationalities is key for boosting your company’s joint intellectual potential. Creating a more diverse workplace will help to keep your team members’ biases in check and make them question their assumptions.

Collective Intelligence vs. Individual Intelligence

How can we make teams smarter?

What would happen if you stacked a team with very high IQ individuals and had them compete with a group with a range of IQs? This is what researchers from Carnegie Mellon and MIT set out to determine. They studied 699 people who were each administered an IQ test and also played checkers vs. a computer to assess their individual intelligence. These 699 participants were then randomly assigned to groups of three people and asked to perform various tasks which included “solving visual puzzles, brainstorming, making collective moral judgments, and negotiating over limited resources.”

Thus, the researchers knew each participant’s individual intelligence and then could see how the various groups performed as compared to individual intelligence.

What was the result?

The researchers found that team performance (or the collective intelligence) “is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.” Thus, diversity of thought and intelligence was correlated with the ability to solve problems as a group. Individual abilities had little to do with overall group performance.

In an interview, the lead author of the study, Anita Woolley, expressed the following with respect to diversity and teams:

Surround yourself with people who are different than you and are not afraid to disagree with you. Our natural tendency is to get together with others who are like us, who think like us and agree with us, it’s much more comfortable and just “easier” to get things done. But those people are not going to bring you new ideas or make your ideas better. It takes active effort to connect, build relationships, and work with people who are different than you are — different professional training, gender, ethnicity, political opinions, the whole gamut.

Further, Prof. Woolley in HBR stated that

In theory, yes, the 10 smartest people could make the smartest group, but it wouldn’t be just because they were the most intelligent individuals. What do you hear about great groups? Not that the members are all really smart but that they listen to each other. They share criticism constructively. They have open minds. They’re not autocratic. And in our study, we saw pretty clearly that groups that had smart people dominating the conversation were not very intelligent groups.”

Diversity Trumps Ability

An interesting study out of the University of Michigan looked at what happens when you create teams of individuals of varying abilities but who have shown that they are all competent problem-solvers. In the study, if participants could individually solve a certain type of problem 60% – 90% of the time, they were considered competent problem-solving agents and included in the study.

The question they addressed is: if you have 1,000 of these competent problem solvers and are choosing a group of 20, which is better: (a) choosing the top 20 in terms of individual competence or (b) randomly choosing a group of 20 people from the 1,000 competent agents?

The study found that “when selecting a problem-solving team from a diverse population of intelligent agents, a team of randomly selected agents outperforms a team comprised of the best-performing agents. Ultimately, the gain in individual abilities is more than offset by the functional diversity of a group of randomly selected
people. It is in this sense that we might say diversity trumps ability.”

Too Many Superstars Can Destroy a Team

According to network scientist Albert-Laslo Barabási of Northeastern University, having too many high performers can be very damaging to a team. In his book The Formula = The Universal Laws of Success: The Science Behind Why People Succeed or Fail, he notes the “infamous example of Duke University, which in the late 1980s and early ’90s, in hopes of creating the best English department in the world, decided to hire every literary superstar they could get their hands on. Needless to say, the result was far from what was envisioned. The department unraveled, a victim of warring critical theories, vastly different approaches to curriculum, and colliding personalities.”

Similarly, a 2014 study of sports teams found that as a team’s talent increases, so does it’s performance, but only up to a point, after which adding talent actually detracted from team performance. The researchers posited that too much talent creates “competition for status” and that teams are better off having a range of talent and ability.

Finally, again from the book The Formula, Dr. Barabási notes a study on chickens and egg laying performance by William Muir. He had many groups with varying egg laying production and created two different groups of chickens:

(1) He selected the best egg laying chickens from all his groups and put them together and bred them. “In a few generations, he presumed, he’d have a coop full of super chickens sitting on mountains of eggs. He’d have, in other words, an all-star team.”

(2) In a second cage he had a high producing group, but of varying individual ability. He bred these chickens as well. This was his control group.

He bred both groups of chickens for six generations. Which group was more productive in terms of egg laying? The results were shocking:

When Muir presented his results at a scientific conference for the first time, he started with the control group. Six generations in, they were thriving. The chickens were not only plump and healthy, their collective egg production had increased by 160 percent. The experiment, in other words, was already a success: Muir demonstrated that by isolating and selectively breeding his best accidental team, that is, his most productive cage, he could dramatically increase the number of eggs his chickens laid.

When he got to the slides showing his superstar cage, though, the audience gasped. Six generations in, the descendants of his superstar hens didn’t look at all like superstars. They looked like they’d been through hell and back. For starters, out of nine hens, only three remained. The missing six had been murdered by their surviving cage mates. And the three survivors were certainly not thriving, either. They were missing most of their feathers. Their tails were bouquets of broken quills. The exposed skin on their wings was pocked with scars. The cage had become a war zone. As far as Muir’s experiment went, egg production was the least of their worries. Maimed and in distress from constant in-fighting, these hens didn’t lay eggs.


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