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Ohbijou photo by Jess Baumung

Jess Baumung

It is a lesson for everyone from corporate Canada to community halls: The key to "smart" groups may have less to do with brains and more to do with social sensitivity - a trait typically found in women.

Researchers in the United States have found that putting individual geniuses together into a team doesn't add up to one intelligent whole. Instead, they found, group intelligence is linked to social skills, taking turns, and the proportion of women in the group.

"The individual intelligence of members is not a very strong predictor of collective intelligence," said lead researcher Anita Woolley, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania.

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Researchers divided 700 people into groups of two to five, and set out to measure their ability to perform tasks such as brainstorming, solving puzzles and making moral judgments. The goal was to assess collective intelligence, dubbed the "c factor."

They found that groups that worked well were ones where members interacted and participated equally. They tended to include more women.

"We didn't expect that the proportion of women would be a significant influence, but we found that it was," Prof. Woolley, an organizational psychologist, said in an interview. "The effect was linear, meaning the more women, the better."

Their social skills might mean picking up non-verbal cues on their faces and deducing what others are feeling, then drawing them out, Prof. Woolley said.

Men can have so-called social sensitivity too, Prof. Woolley said. But if you're a decision-maker and don't know anything about people before putting a team together, "then a better bet is to incorporate more women."

The findings could be relevant to everything from scientific collaboration to corporate offices and the high-stakes field of military planning.

"Could a short collective intelligence test predict a sales team's or a top management team's long-term effectiveness?" the study asks.

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Researchers found that groups where a few people dominated the conversation were less "collectively intelligent" than those where everyone shared equally. In other words, the silent type in the corner may be the smartest person in the room. And the loudmouth who dominates the conversation may not be helping at all.

The study's findings rang true for Canadians accustomed to working in groups.

At Vancouver advertising agency Wasserman and Partners, about two-thirds of the employees are women, and it's no accident. Women are more successful as account coordinators - jobs that involve keeping clients happy and getting work from the firm's creative types on time - and consequently get promoted to higher levels in the organization, said company president Alvin Wasserman.

"You need really solid communication skills and you need really good people skills and we've found women are better there than men," Mr. Wasserman said. On the creative side, he said, women and men perform equally well.

Lynda Leonard of Ottawa, who ran her own communications company in the 1990s and is now senior vice-president at the Information Technology Association of Canada in Ottawa, said some work groups tend to be dominated by "the people who speak the most eloquently or the loudest." But she has found that the most effective groups are sometimes those "who listen for opportunity."

"We know that women are good at listening and communicating. Women know what it's like not to be heard. You learn that there is a lot of value going around the table that's untapped."

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"You may be a fairly low-ranking scientist or engineer and still might have a skill set that can make or break a project."

Tiffany Paulsen, a Saskatoon lawyer and city councillor who sits on numerous working groups and committees, has found that women tend to take a collaborative approach to decisions and weigh issues from different perspectives.

"When you have more thoughtful and intelligent discussions, the quality of your decision increases," she said. Men tend to be more aggressive in their statements and interactions, she said, while women tend to be more "reflective."

"It does increase the group intelligence. The more thought you put into what you say, the more likely it will improve what comes out of your mouth.

Social sensitivity helps Toronto indie band Ohbijou navigate the stresses of recording and touring together. Being able to read when a band mate is ready to quit for the night or when a songwriting session is going nowhere helps keep harmony in the group, says lead singer Casey Mecija.

"From where to stop and where to eat and where to stay and what time to meet up for sound check, it takes negotiation," Ms. Mecija said.

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The group, comprised of four women and two men, also recently revamped its songwriting process to incorporate all band members' input. One member will come with a melody or chords, another will add a bridge and the others will layer on different elements until the band has a complete song.

"We've been able to decipher peoples' personalities - when we need to back off or when we need to push someone to get their best," said Ms. Mecija, who recently returned from a stint with her band writing at a cottage in rural Ontario.

The study is published in the Sept. 30 issue of the journal Science.

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