Research team performance

By Jennifer E. Cross and Hannah Love

Jennifer E. Cross (biography)

How can we improve the creativity and performance of research teams?

Recent studies on team performance have pointed out that the performance and creativity of teams has more to do with the social processes of interaction on teams, than on individual personality traits. Research on creativity and innovation in teams has found that there are three key predictors of team success:

  1. group membership,
  2. rules of engagement, and
  3. patterns of interaction.

Each of these three predictors can be influenced in order to improve the performance of teams, as the following examples show.

Hannah Love (biography)

Researchers studying knowledge networks have found that team diversity—members with different knowledge, skills, and background—has a positive influence on team creativity and innovative outcome (Anklam 2007; Thompson 2003). More recently, one study found specifically that the proportion of women on a team increases team performance (Woolley et al. 2010). Additionally, empirical research has found that women scientists tend to express not just stronger skills for working in cross-disciplinary teams, but also greater interest in integrating across fields and approaches and be committed to connecting their research with societal concerns (Rhoten and Pfirman 2007).

The findings of Woolley and colleagues (2010) that the proportion of women on the team increases the collective intelligence of the team, points also to the importance of the social interactions within the team. In their study, the other two predictors of a team’s performance, or collective intelligence (which they call the C-factor), are even turn taking and social sensitivity. Even turn-taking occurs when everyone on the team is participating and the conversation is not dominated by a few voices. Since women tend to have higher social sensitivity scores than men, increasing the proportion of women on a team helps improve group interactions which lead to higher team performance.

Other studies of team performance have found that using a third party facilitator, setting ground rules for group interactions, and using writing techniques (eg., brainwriting, nominal group technique) for idea generation also help improve team performance (Thompson 2003).

Preliminary results from our own work have found that the strongest teams have central female mentors and more even turn-taking (Love and Cross 2016). More specifically, on the most successful small teams, women comprise half of the team. On the most successful large teams (10 or more people), women comprised about one third of the team overall, and a few (2-4) women were seen as key scientific leaders and mentors. One of the features that differentiated successful from unsuccessful teams was the identification of women as mentors across the network. Successful teams applied for more and larger grants, had fun, and increased their networks.

How can the C-Factor be used to improve teams?

Teams can be taught about the C-factor, even turn-taking, and social sensitivity. At Colorado State University, we facilitate workshops for newly formed interdisciplinary teams.

We teach teams specific techniques to increase even turn-taking and discuss the importance of the roles women play on teams. Specifically, we discuss how women should not be tasked with note-taking or project management but instead should be scientific leaders and mentors on these teams.

We also discuss how social sensitivity and psychological safety make it easier for people to share new ideas and take creative risks. In addition to formal workshops, we also visit team meetings and give specific advice on using the C-factor and share data on the team’s interactions.

Does this mesh with your experience? Have you developed ways to encourage even turn-taking and other forms of social sensitivity?

Anklam, P. (2007). Net work: A practical guide to creating and sustaining networks at work and in the world. Butterworth-Heinemann: Burlington, Massachusetts, United States of America.

Love, H. and Cross, J. E. (2016). Increasing the performance of interdisciplinary research teams. Science of Team Science (SciTS) Conference, Phoenix, Arizona, United States of America, May 17-19 2016.

Rhoten, D. and Pfirman, S. (2007). Women in interdisciplinary science: Exploring preferences and consequences. Research Policy, 36, 1: 56-75

Thompson, L. (2003). Improving the creativity of organizational work groups. Academy of Management Executive, 17, 1: 96-109

Woolley, A. W., Chabris, C. F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N. and Malone, T. W. (2010). Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science, 330, 6004: 686-88

Biography: Jeni Cross, PhD, is the Director of Research for the Institute for the Built Environment, Co-Director of the Center for Energy and Behavior, and Associate Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University. Her areas of expertise include behavior change, community development, conservation, inter-agency collaboration, professional social networks, and urban sustainability. Current research projects include working with local governments and non-profits to develop new programs and tools to increase energy conservation in residential and commercial buildings, a multi-year project to assess the impact of green schools on student and teacher health and well-being, a large multi-disciplinary effort focused on district scale solutions for urban sustainability, and social network analysis of innovation in multi-disciplinary teams.

Biography: Hannah Love is a PhD Student in sociology at Colorado State University. The focus of her research is: community sociology, social network analysis, the science of team science, program evaluation, sociology of education, and water conflict. She is interested in answering questions such as: How do we best transfer knowledge and facilitate the creation of new knowledge in classrooms, on research teams, and with community groups? Currently, Hannah is the graduate research assistant conducting a 2-year longitudinal study about the science of team science.

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