Collective Intelligence: Unlock your team’s potential


When geese fly in a “V” formation, they can fly greater distances than if each one were to fly alone. The way they work together creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In the human world, often we select group members based on individual qualities – e.g. the smartest, the loudest, or even the most like ourselves. However, if your group is working on a complex problem that requires collaboration, you need to find people who are good at working together in groups. You need people who will increase the group’s collective intelligence.

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.

Anita Woolley (Source: HBR)

When the individuals’ minds are brought together in a group, a group mind develops. This is collective intelligence.

Crucially, collective intelligence is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members.

Instead, research has found three key underlying factors linked to highly intelligent groups:

  1. Level of social intelligence
  2. How much everyone contributes to group discussion
  3. Gender ratio


The average social perceptiveness of group members is more important than the average intelligence within the group. Group performance depends on how well the individual members can read the emotions of the other group members. And picking up on non-verbal cues doesn’t just apply to face-to-face interactions: it has also been found to apply to groups that only interact through text online.

Test your ability to “read between the lines” with this online social intelligence test.


Groups in which there is a relatively even distribution of conversational turn-taking among team members are more collectively intelligent than groups with a few team members who dominate the discussion. Taking turns to speak is important. When team members are not talking, they are listening.

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.

Stephen R. Covey

Brush up on your own listening skills by reflecting on what great listeners actually do.


OK, I get that having female representation in your group is a no-brainer. But what is interesting is the proportion of women in your group. Research has found the more women on your team, the better.

A recent blog post by Rob Pyne on why the smartest teams are majority-female inspired me to explore this research.

Figure 1. Relationship between collective intelligence and percentages of females in the group

Figure 1 shows some surprising results from the collective intelligence research. The first vertical line represents the male-only groups. The second vertical line represents groups consisting predominantly of males, i.e. with only a low proportion of females; these groups showed lower collective intelligence than the male-only groups.

However, check out the next three vertical lines in Figure 1. The third and fourth lines represent the groups with increasing proportions of females, and the fifth line represents groups consisting of females only. All of these groups showed higher collective intelligence.

A key finding is that the optimal proportion of women in groups is around 75%-80%.

Earlier this year, Radio New Zealand observed that “In New Zealand less than 30 percent of board directors are women. Twenty-seven companies – nearly a fifth of all those listed on the NZX – have no women on their boards whatsoever.” Just think how much smarter this sort of group might potentially be if they not only included women but were also majority-female.

A quick scan of the gaming trust landscape in New Zealand paints a similar picture to that of our NZX companies (see Figure 2). Gaming trusts are a major source of funding for not-for-profits in New Zealand, responsible for making funding decisions that impact many different charities. Over half of the 23 gaming trusts reviewed have no female representation at board level. Four of the boards have a low proportion of females, up to 25%. Two boards have a high proportion of females, both of them having women make up exactly 75% of the board. This means only two of the boards are in the zone of the optimal 75%-80% proportion of women suggested by the research.

Figure 2. NZ gaming trusts: proportion of women at board level

Another quick scan, this time of philanthropic foundations from the membership of Philanthropy Australia (Figure 3), shows a slightly different result. Over half of the 20 foundations reviewed have women making up between 26% and 50% of the board. However, there are only two with a proportion of women over 50%; drilling down further, neither of these reached past 70%. That is, of the 20 philanthropic foundations reviewed, none are in the zone of the optimal 75%-80% proportion of women suggested by the research.

Figure 3. Australian philanthropic foundations: proportion of women at board level

Research tells us that increasing the number of women in a group, up to a proportion around 75%-80% of the group, is likely to increase collective intelligence. If we can apply this knowledge more widely, to more groups, just imagine what might be achieved.

If you’ve committed to increasing gender diversity in your team, here are some suggestions for how to make it happen.