Add Women, Get Smarter: What’s the Deal with Social Sensitivity?

iStock_000004512689XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

You may have been surprised recently to see a few articles explaining that adding a few women to a group can raise the group’s intelligence as a whole: add women, get smarter.

Well, maybe you were not so surprised, really.

The MIT study, cited in the Harvard Business Review, set out to explore how the the individual intelligence levels of group members combined to produce an overall group intelligence level. The researchers, Anita Woolley, Thomas Malone, and Scott Berinato, were surprised at what they found.

It seemed group satisfaction, group cohesion, and group motivation had no effect on group intelligence, and they expected to see group intelligence levels increase as gender diversity increased up to the point of gender balance. But what the study really revealed was: the more women the better – to heck with balance!

Well – not quite, the researchers explained. It turns out group intelligence is not exactly a matter of gender. According to Woolley, it’s not simply all those extra X chromosome that makes majority-female groups smarter – it’s the higher degree of “social sensitivity” that often comes along with women.

She said, “What do you hear about great groups? Not that the members are all really smart but that they listen to each other.”

Social Sensitivity

In a recent HBR article, Woolley and Malone set out to set the record straight. Adding women means adding social sensitivity – not simply adding smarts. Woolley explained:

“It’s just that part of that finding can be explained by differences in social sensitivity, which we found is also important to group performance. Many studies have shown that women tend to score higher on tests of social sensitivity than men do. So what is really important is to have people who are high in social sensitivity, whether they are men or women.”

Groups become smarter when individuals are able to share and communicate. And it’s not that women are necessarily smarter than men – it’s just that women are often better collaborating.

The results around social sensitivity and women are not groundbreaking. Women have long been hailed as the more collaborative gender – and particularly in the postindustrial work environment, collaboration is seen as a asset, not a weakness.

As Alice H. Eagly, Northwestern University, and Linda L. Carli, Wellesly University, wrote in their 2003 paper, “The female leadership advantage: An evaluation of the evidence” [PDF], social sensitivity is an important quality for today’s effective leaders.

“Whereas in the past, leaders based their authority mainly on their access to political, economic, or military power, in postindustrial societies leaders share power far more and establish many collaborative relationships (Lipman-Blumen, 1996). Therefore, contemporary views of good leadership encourage teamwork and collaboration and emphasize the ability to empower, support, and engage workers (e.g., Hammer & Champy, 1994; Senge, 1994).”

Encouraging Collaborative Models

According to Woolley and Malone, the results of their study should be applicable to groups of any size – from a small team up to a large organization, even a community or city has group intelligence, they say. And that’s a good thing.

Malone explained, “Though you can change an individual’s intelligence only so much, we think it’s completely possible to markedly change a group’s intelligence. You could increase it by changing members or incentives for collaboration, for instance.”

Woolley said that companies can capitalize on the benefits of social sensitivity by rewarding collaborative behavior. She explained:

“Some companies that do well at scanning the environment and setting targets also excel at managing internal operations and mentoring employees—and have better financial performance. Consistent performance across disparate areas of functioning suggests an organizational collective intelligence, which could be used to predict company performance.”

Hopefully the social sensitivity research will also compel more companies to encourage the more collaborative models of leadership at which women excel.