Carnegie Mellon University


May 15, 2019

Research: Most Productive Teams Require Mix of People Who Think Differently From Each Other

Noelle Wiker

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 the Tepper School of Business.

Anita Williams Woolley, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory, coauthored the study, “The Impact of Cognitive Style Diversity on Implicit Learning in Teams,” which was recently 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 to play 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 explains.

“Up to a point, they benefit from the different perspectives, but then the difficulties outweigh the benefits,” she notes — known in research as a curvilinear, or U-shaped, effect.

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.

Some people will straddle two categories, and these tend to be the facilitators in a group, explains Woolley: Those who can bridge the gaps between learning styles.

Savvy organizations are getting better at understanding the qualities of employees that contribute to effective collaboration, says Woolley. 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 says. “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.