Carnegie Mellon University
June 28, 2019

Researchers Say Most Productive Teams Include Different Kinds of Thinkers

To create optimal collaboration in a work group, organizations should strike the right balance of different cognitive styles among the participants, according to new research from Carnegie Mellon University.

Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory in the Tepper School of Business, coauthored the study, "The Impact of Cognitive Style Diversity on Implicit Learning in Teams," which was published in the journal Frontiers In Psychology. In it, Woolley and collaborators Ishani Aggarwal, Christopher F. Chabris and Thomas W. Malone found that participants had to have just the right mix of cognitive diversity to create the highest collective intelligence.

Woolley referred to the ideal mix as following "the Goldilocks principle: Not too little (diversity), and not too much. You want it just right."

The study looked at 98 teams ranging from two to five people while playing a coordination game. Those groups that had the right level of diversity were able to collaborate effectively by making use of their different perspectives while also being able to overcome the difficulties that diversity can present.

When not enough diversity exists within a group, it stagnates, while too much diversity can create gaps that participants are unable to bridge, Woolley said.

"Up to a point, they benefit from the different perspectives, but then the difficulties outweigh the benefits," she said.

The study labeled participants according to three different cognitive styles: Verbalizers, spatial visualizers, and object visualizers, which describes how the people receive and analyze information. Journalists and lawyers tend to be verbalizers; engineers and people in other math-driven professions are spatial visualizers, who think analytically; and artists are object visualizers, who tend to think about the bigger picture.

Woolley said some people will straddle two categories, and they tend to be group facilitators.

Savvy organizations are getting better at understanding the qualities of employees that contribute to effective collaboration, Woolley said. They might assign a color to each cognitive style — for example, red for a verbalizer, blue for a spatial visualizer, and yellow for an object visualizer — and when they build teams, they note not just that they want a group to include someone from marketing, sales and operations, but also from red, blue and yellow to achieve a moderate level of diversity.

"You can design teams to be collectively intelligent, and that lays the groundwork for them to not only perform well, but also to adapt when circumstances change," she said. "Designing collective intelligence can set teams up for success."

Collective intelligence refers to the shared intelligence of a group that emerges from collaboration among its members. Woolley's research has focused extensively on what factors enhance collective intelligence and, consequently, how to build productive groups using that research to achieve optimal results.