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The Day Your Company's IQ and Productivity Shot Up

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

Finding good players is easy. Getting them to play as a team is another story. — Casey Stengel, manager of the champion New York Yankees of the 1950's

When you’re part of a team that’s firing on cylinders, it’s magic. Things flow. Feedback is sharp & critical, yet focused on excellence and not ego-driven criticism. You laugh with your team. You trust your team. You LIKE your team.

How does this high-performance magic happen? Luckily, the folks at Google spent millions of dollars, 2 years, and engaged some of the best minds in the world to find out.

Their research, known internally as Project Aristotle, asked what is the best predictor of productive teams.

They asked a lot of questions.

Project Aristotle’s researchers began by reviewing a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams worked. Were the best teams made up of people with similar interests? Or did it matter more whether everyone was motivated by the same kinds of rewards? Based on those studies, the researchers scrutinized the composition of groups inside Google: How often did teammates socialize outside the office? Did they have the same hobbies? Were their educational backgrounds similar? Was it better for all teammates to be outgoing or for all of them to be shy? They drew diagrams showing which teams had overlapping memberships and which groups had exceeded their departments’ goals. They studied how long teams stuck together and if gender balance seemed to have an impact on a team’s success. [1]

They looked at everything. They were obsessed with building the perfect team.

After studying hundreds of teams and reviewing the literature, they were stuck. They had figured out that group norms were the key to product teams, but the lead researcher, 25-year-old Julia Rozovsky, couldn’t tell which norms. She saw no clear patterns, or she’d see a pattern contradicted by other patterns. [1]

Meanwhile, psychologists at M.I.T., Carnegie Mellon, and Union College were collaborating on a similar question

and as luck had it, they were about to collide with Google’s Project Aristotle. They published their research, wherein they found evidence for a Group IQ.

Interestingly, they noticed that Group IQ is not impacted much by the intelligence of the individuals.

Instead, it’s:

correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group. [2]

The entire abstract, describing a bit about their experiment to study 699 people divided into small groups:

Psychologists have repeatedly shown that a single statistical factor — often called “general intelligence” — emerges from the correlations among people’s performance on a wide variety of cognitive tasks. But no one has systematically examined whether a similar kind of “collective intelligence” exists for groups of people. In two studies with 699 people, working in groups of two to five, we find converging evidence of a general collective intelligence factor that explains a group’s performance on a wide variety of tasks. This “c factor” is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.

In other words, the most productive groups didn’t have the smartest people, or a super-smart leader. Their superpowers came from something else.

What mattered?

What mattered was that:

1. They were sensitive to each other’s feelings

2. They each spoke up, almost equally. In other words, nobody dominated the conversation

3. Having women in the group helped with #1 and #2 because women score higher than men on social sensitivity scores [2]


If you’re like most organizations, you are. It’s almost the opposite of what most knowledge-work companies screen for during interviews.

Does this mean you don’t need people with high IQ’s? No.

General intelligence of individual employee’s is the best predictor for their individual success. [3]

So, you’ll need those high-IQ people in your company, succeeding.

But you’ll need to pro-actively create psychological safety; those high-IQ folks aren’t necessarily known for their people skills.

So, how can you create this?

How can you create psychological safety for your employees?

How can you help your employees be more in-tune with other’s emotions?

There’s no one-size-fits-all here, but there are several principles to keep in mind.

To accomplish this, experiment inside your company, and figure out the best approach. Measure the results using a regular survey to your employees, and continue trying new things until you significantly move the needle. Ask if they feel they can speak up when they see something. Ask if they feel heard. Ask if any of their coworkers tend to completely dominate the conversation.

Principle # 1: Develop a “no all-stars” mentality

Communicate to your employees that no individual can possibly carry a company. You have to make sure everybody knows that it’s about the team, not the players. The team plays the game. The team wins.

Bill Walsh, the legendary football coach, said:

You can only succeed when people are communicating, not just from the top down, but in complete interchange. Communication comes from fighting off my ego and listening.

Leaders have to listen, just as much (or more) than anybody else. Walsh is saying that the team needs to listen to each-other. Full stop. Also, he is setting the tone as the coach — putting down his ego and listening.

One of the most powerful ways to impact your culture is the power of the promotion. Who you promote sends a huge signal about what behaviors you prioritize. If you’re promoting the loudest voices in the room, you are encouraging the opposite of the behavior that leads to a higher Group IQ. [2]

Instead, promote those people who are the best at bringing out the best in teams.

There’s a lot of talk in Silicon Valley about 10x engineers, and a 10x engineer is an amazing sight to behold. But we don’t talk enough about 10x leaders, who can help draw out the best in the people around them, inspire them, and can literally create a higher Group IQ.

Tom Landry, who they called “God’s coach” (he had 20 consecutive winning seasons as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys), had this to say:

Really, coaching is simplicity. It’s getting players to play better than they think that they can.

In a knowledge work context, for your best players, that means helping them shut up, listen, and help enable those around them. You need those all-stars; those with something to prove will work day and night if they’re inspired by your mission. But, let them know that they’ll shine all the more if they learn to help others to shine.

Principle #2: Encourage (and pay for) co-workers to get together outside of work, and play.

This is what we’re working on enabling at Freeplay — figuring out how to take away all the friction when organizing play for groups. What we’re building is a bit like recess, but for grownups.

“In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

The brilliant philosopher Nietzsche said it well; everybody wants to play. Those we play with, we learn to like. We often become life-long friends with them.

One of my best friends growing up, and somebody I still count as a friend and talk to regularly, I met playing baseball in a neighborhood park in San Francisco. He had a wicked good arm and threw me a curveball the first day we met; it hit me square in the leg and left a terrible knot. I was more impressed than hurt, and we became great friends.

Many people have similar stories.

But it’s harder to play as we get older. Some of us have been taught they shouldn’t play anymore, that “only kids play.” It isn’t true. Play is critical to happiness and health.

Jack Ma, billionaire, and founder of Alibaba, had this to say:

I don’t think I’m a workaholic. Every weekend, I invite my colleagues and friends to my home to play cards. And people, my neighbors, are always surprised because I live on the second-floor apartment, and there are usually 40 pairs of shoes in front of my gate, and people play cards inside and play chess. We have a lot of fun.

During free play, we enter a flow state — if we’re playing a sufficiently challenging game (but not one that’s too challenging), time seems to disappear. We enter the game, and it takes over. Almost as an afterthought and without really trying to, we get an amazing workout.

Not only do we build friendships through this free play, but by playing a sport, or finding an active hobby like rock climbing or yoga, we effortlessly stay in shape. It’s like magic.

Former NFL player, Mitch Mathews, said [5] it well:

If someone told me to go run 7 or 8 miles right now, there is no chance I would agree to go. I don’t like running. But if someone threw a football on a field, some boxing gloves in a ring, or a basketball on a court, I would run until I threw up.

When I played football in college and in the NFL, we would have tracking devices in our shoulder pads to gather data, for example, how far we would run at practice and in games. Turns out that most games and some practices I was averaging about 7–8 miles of running from the time I put my shoulder pads on. That same 7–8 mile jog that I would never agree to do, I would do with a smile on my face for football…. The same goes for my new hobby/workout, boxing.

… If you find something you love to do, you won’t care about how much you have to “run” because your (sic) obsessed with the game or the job. You won’t even notice the long “jog” because your mind is chasing after something bigger!

That idea is core to what we’re building at Freeplay. We want to enable groups at work to play sports like soccer, ultimate frisbee, do fun recreational things like hike, climb, do yoga, or CrossFit. And we think play is so important to a group’s culture, that we’re working on enabling play across every department and within every community & company.

Freeplayers at Qualtrics after some Freeplay-inspired volleyball

More at freeplayapp.com

Principle #3: Start at the top — the CEO sets the tone

This really needs to start at the top; the CEO sets the tone, and establishes the norms in the company. CEO’s should talk about their expectations that their employees play together, that they share the mic, and that they focus on hiring people that will help build the highest Group IQ.

CEO’s create the culture, whether they do it deliberately or let it happen by accident. Spend time on this; it’s important, and could be the difference between the life and death of your company.

Kim Scott, former Google executive and author of “Radical Candor,” tells a story about how Larry Page embraced radical measures to improve psychological safety. Scott remembers seeing his leadership in action, where an executive challenged Page, without fear.

Scott recounts the experience:

So, I’ll never forget, shortly after I joined, watching Matt Cutts and Larry Page have this argument about something, I don’t even remember what. But I really liked Matt, I had gotten to know him, and he starts yelling at Larry, and I was just looking at Matt and listening to what he was saying, and I was starting to worry, “Oh my gosh. Matt’s gonna get fired!” And then I looked at Larry and he’s just got this big grin, his whole face is lit up. It was just such a productive way to have arguments that it was sort of inspiring. [4]

Larry Page understands the importance of creating psychological safety for his team; so he welcomes it when they disagree, and therefore makes it ok for his leaders to allow the same.

This has profound effects across a company’s culture.

Principle #4. MEASURE, MEASURE, MEASURE. Send out a weekly survey to all employees through something like 6Q or 15Five. Measure and improve.

Every week, send out questions to gauge how psychologically safe your employees feel.

Use these questions to get a peek into the overall Group IQ at your company. Track it over time and make a concrete goal to improve it. Watch the numbers and continue experimenting until you move the needle.

A few good questions to ask in this survey:

  • In meetings with your colleagues this week, did you feel you could express your honest opinion?

  • Are you or others around you consistently being interrupted or ignored in group discussions?

  • Do you feel safe to bring up new ideas in the group, or do you tend to keep new ideas to yourself? Why?

  • Do your manager and other colleagues invite dissent or do they tend to shy away from it?

  • Do you play any games with your coworkers, whether in the office or out?

By measuring your experiments through a regular survey, you can see how well your efforts are changing the culture. If you focus on this, and change the norms at your company, you can expect an up-leveling across your entire organization as your Group IQ increases.

If you promote a culture that rewards Group IQ over individuals’ achievements, you encourage people to play together both onsite and off through things like Freeplay, if you set the tone from the top, and if you measure the impact of your experiments through regular survey’s, you’ll be on your way to making a huge impact on your Company IQ, and productivity.


[1] What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, The New York Times Magazine, Charles Duhigg, Feb 25, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html

[2] Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups, Anita Williams Woolley, et al. Science 330, 686 (2010); DOI: 10.1126/science.1193147 http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~ab/Salon/research/Woolley_et_al_Science_2010-2.pdf

[3] Quora answer to “What is more beneficial in all aspects of life; a high EQ or IQ? This question is based on the assumption that only your EQ or IQ is high with the other being average or below this average, by Jordan Peterson, psychology professor at University of Toronto, clinical psychologist, lecturer and author

[4] Full transcript: Kim Scott and her book ‘Radical Candor’ live onstage for Recode Decode, “The meaning of ‘Radical Candor’ is care personally, challenge directly, and when you do both at the same time, that’s good.”, By Recode Staff Updated Apr 13, 2017, 5:27pm EDT https://www.recode.net/2017/4/13/15295070/transcript-kim-scott-book-radical-candor-live-onstage-recode-decode

[5] Mitch Mathews, on Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/BtmjXOJluij/




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