Work skills for the future: Social Sensitivity


One of the fascinating paradoxes of small group performance is that the IQ scores of individuals in the group is not a good predictor of group success. What is?

Anita Wooley of Carnegie Mellon University and her colleagues researched the question by dividing 600 test subjects into groups of 2 to 6, and had them attempt various problem-solving tasks. Afterward the interviewed the participants, and measured factors possibly relevant to performance, like  individual intelligence and personality, and group cohesion and motivation. The only factors that rose to the top were social sensitivity, gender (women are more socially sensitive than men), and balanced participation in conversation.

I find it fascinating that group cohesion matters little, as is individual intelligence, motivation, and happiness. Let’s think about these points.

One of the mantras we hear all the time is that businesses need to have cultures based on group cohesion. This is why people are constantly droning on about cultural fit, and getting and keeping people ‘on the same page’. This research upends that. Group cohesion might make people more comfortable, but it doesn’t correlate with performance. We know from other research that diverse groups working on critical projects are likely to have higher performance than non-diverse groups, but the pressure and tension can be so great to make the experience uncomfortable, despite the outcome.

Motivation has fallen a bit from its place in management theory, but there is still a strong presumption that extrinsic motivation is a powerful inducement to increase performance. Not so, says this research.

The balanced communication finding is very interesting. In high-performing groups there is a lot more sharing going on in meetings, which likely uncovers more diverse opinions and insights, and surfaces objections and concerns as early as possible. The participants are more likely to feel that they are being heard, and more likely to understand what the viewpoints of all the members of the group are.

This last point is linked to the notion of ‘theory of mind’, which is the capacity of socially sensitive (or ‘socially intelligent’) people to comprehend the feelings and perceptions of others. Bob Johanson, formerly of the Institute for the Future, writes about quiet transparency as a key skill for the future, and it basically is the complement of social sensitivity, because quiet transparency is about being open and authentic, which makes it easier for others to ‘read’ you.

Social sensitivity is not purely genetic: its both inherited predisposition and learned behavior. And, as Woolley’s research shows, this is where individuals and businesses should be putting their efforts. It would be interesting to see if this information has actually reached the world of business, yet.


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