It would be difficult to find a learning leader today who didn’t think emotional intelligence was crucial for success in the workplace. Many companies and consultants specialize in the design and implementation of interventions to develop employees’ emotional intelligence, and studies have demonstrated that training and coaching can have a significant impact on emotional intelligence – for individuals, that is.
But is emotional intelligence a property of individuals alone, or a distinct property for teams as well? Consider the larger question: Does team performance reflect the sum of knowledge, skills and attitudes of its individual members, or is something more complex happening at the team level?
We know that tasks are accomplished through collaborations between people and tools rather than single individuals, yet we still tend to default to the individual’s perspective when determining needs, designing interventions and evaluating results. What would it mean to look at learning and performance from a team rather than an individual perspective?
To answer this question, consider two ways of thinking about cognition at the team level. Collective cognition directly reflects the sum of its parts. It’s an aggregate of the individuals’ properties within the team. Holistic cognition, in contrast, is something other than an aggregate of individual capabilities. Through team processes such as communication, decision-making and collaboration, there is a set of knowledge, skills and attitudes that emerge only at the team level; it is non-existent within individuals.
This is particularly important in complex settings that require sophisticated awareness of the environment and mental models. Disastrous outcomes in this kind of scenario have played out many times over. Historically, gaps at the team level, rather than individual capabilities, have contributed to epic catastrophes, from the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle explosions to the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear meltdowns.
Let’s take as given that emotional intelligence is a characteristic in individuals, typically measured in terms of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Does the emotional intelligence of a team simply reflect the sum of its members’ individual levels of emotional intelligence, or do distinct knowledge, skills and attitudes arise at the team level?
While the majority of researchers since Daniel Goleman published Emotional Intelligence in 1995 have continued to focus on individual emotional intelligence, Vanessa Druskat and Steve Wolff have been studying the emotional intelligence of groups. To this day, the Group Emotional Intelligence, or GEI, survey they developed remains one of the only research-based instruments used to measure emotional intelligence at the team level.
For example, Elizabeth Stubbs Koman worked with Steven Wolff to study the impact of a leader’s emotional intelligence on the emotional intelligence and overall performance in U.S. Navy aircrew and maintenance teams. At the time, Koman was Druskat’s doctoral student at Case Western Reserve; Druskat is Wolff’s business partner. They used the GEI Survey to evaluate emotional intelligence in terms of nine norms unique to teams:
- Interpersonal understanding
- Confronting team members who break norms
- Caring behavior
- Team self-evaluation
- Creating resources for working with emotion
- Creating an affirmative environment
- Proactive problem solving
- Organizational understanding
- Building external relationships
Once we know what to measure, the next question is how best to measure it. There is some debate on the best approach to measure team-level capabilities. One option is to average individual ratings; another is to adopt a more holistic approach, such as having team members discuss and come to agreement on their ratings. From a theoretical perspective, the latter seems a better fit. In practice, however, it turns out the mean of individual responses is strongly correlated with performance, and this is how a team’s emotional intelligence is assessed using the GEI Survey.
It’s important to note there is evidence that there is no statistical relationship between the emotional intelligence of a team and that of its individual members. In standard instructional practice, however, we continue to assume that individuals’ knowledge, skills and attitudes automatically add up to team-level performance, and that to ignore the cognitive properties that emerge uniquely within groups is bad business.
We need to understand the implications of cognition as a social phenomenon. Learning professionals should be looking for opportunities to get people working more effectively with each other as well as with the tools available to them. Therefore, consider that key cognitive properties may only emerge at the team level. These could be the abilities that end up propelling performance in unexpected and brilliant ways.
Sarah Sniderman is owner and lead consultant for Learning Codes. To comment email editor@CLOmedia.com.