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The socially insensitive diminish collective intelligence, but it can be easily fixed
“It is axiomatic that we should all think of ourselves as being more sensitive than other people because, when we are insensitive in our dealings with others, we cannot be aware of it at the time; conscious insensitivity is a self-contradiction.” — W.H. Auden
The title of Dr. Nicoleta Meslec’s and her collaborator’s wonderful research paper is as blunt as it is conclusive: The Insensitive Ruins It All.1
In their study on collective intelligence they found that socially insensitive members dragged the performance of the entire group down:
Socially sensitive group members cannot compensate for the lack of social sensitivity of the other group members
For a group to be able to consistently perform well on a wide range of tasks it needs to be composed of members that are highly socially sensitive
Social sensitivity and gender
Social sensitivity is the ability of group members to “tune in” to other’s mental states.
Socially sensitive group members are the ones that typically attend to the interpersonal dynamics of groups. They move from the dance floor to the balcony, so to speak, stepping momentarily out of the conversation (the dance floor) to observe and influence team dynamics (from the balcony). In doing so, they help foster a positive interpersonal atmosphere that is ultimately conducive to task performance.2
Women often display higher social sensitivity than men, and teams with higher numbers of women are usually more collectively intelligent.3
A little motivation
But this doesn’t mean that men are born insensitive clods. It appears that motivation plays a major factor. In a fascinating study by Kristi Klein and Sara Hodges, empathetic accuracy differences between men and women were wiped out once men were motivated to pay attention to other people’s feelings — by being rewarded for doing so.4 In their experiment, a small monetary reward was sufficient to induce men to significantly improve their empathy scores.
It is possible that, in general, women are cued by gender roles to try and understand what other people are feeling while men need an additional push. But both genders are capable of high social sensitivity.
Since the link between high social sensitivity and increased collective intelligence is clear, perhaps that is motivation enough. Hey men, want to improve your team’s performance? Then sharpen up those empathy skills!
According to Stanford University psychology professor Jamil Zaki, ”empathy is like a skill. It's like a muscle. We can practice it like any other skill and get better at connecting with people.”5
Here are some simple exercises that Zaki suggests:6
Think about an issue you beat yourself up about. Then imagine a friend coming to you with that same problem. How would you treat your friend? We are often more compassionate to others than we are to ourselves. Practice being a better friend to yourself.
Perform tiny acts of kindness, particularly when you don’t feel like it
When feeling drained or stressed out, try doing something easy but nice for someone. Buy a colleague a surprise coffee, or shoot off a short message of support or appreciation. Doing something nice for others is highly energising and builds a good habit of mind.
Learn to disagree agreeably
When in conversation with someone you vehemently disagree with, rather than trying to win them over to your side of the argument simply share the story of how you arrived at your opinion and listen to how they arrived at theirs. Then thank them for sharing and leave it at that. Empathy is all about understanding and respect.
Praise empathy in others
Keep an eye out for moments when others are kind or when they do something to improve the interpersonal dynamics in some way, then publicly compliment them on it; “I really liked the way you handled that”, or “thanks for being so caring”. Miro-validations go a long way towards creating positive cultures.
Increasing team member’s social sensitivity is key to improving collective intelligence. It can not be left to a few women to nurture the collective personality of the group. It’s everyone’s responsibility. And it is easy enough to do. All it takes is a little practice.
Jamil Zaki’s video presentation — Building Empathy in a Fractured World — is a good introduction to empathy development
I’ll be further exploring topics relating to empathy and collective intelligence in this substack, you can subscribe here:
The Three Stooges, public domain
Empathetic accuracy, my training slides
Nicoleta Meslec, Ishani Aggarwal, and Petru L. Curseu, ‘The Insensitive Ruins It All: Compositional and Compilational Influences of Social Sensitivity on Collective Intelligence in Groups’, Frontiers in Psychology 7 (2016), doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00676.
Curşeu, P. L., Pluut, H., Boroş, S., and Meslec, N. (2015a). The magic of collective emotional intelligence in learning groups: no guys needed for the spell! Br. J. Psychol. 106, 217–234. doi: 10.1111/bjop.12075
Anita Woolley, Ishani Aggarwal, and Thomas Malone, ‘Collective Intelligence and Group Performance’, Current Directions in Psychological Science 24 (1 December 2015): 420–24, doi:10.1177/0963721415599543
Klein, Kristi & Hodges, Sara. (2001). Gender Differences, Motivation, and Empathic Accuracy: When it Pays to Understand. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 27. 720-730. doi:10.1177/0146167201276007.
From the Wbur Podcast: How Power Erodes Empathy, And The Steps We Can Take To Rebuild It