The Importance of Emotional Intelligence In Online Teams

We’re widely believed to be operating in an age of social business, where collaboration and teamwork are fundamental to how we work.  The rising number of digital tools in the workplace ensure that much of this collaboration is done online rather than face to face, as was perhaps previously the case.

How effective are we when we turn to these online channels for our teamwork? Are we as effective on those as we are when working with colleagues in the physical realm? That was the topic of a new study led by researchers from Carnegie Mellon that was published in PLOS One.

When we work together as a team, our effectiveness can often be characterised by what the researchers term our collective intelligence. This general term refers to how strong the team are at performing a range of various tasks.

The collective intelligence of teams

The research set out to explore whether the kind of factors that contribute to collective intelligence in face to face teams, also apply when we work collectively online too.

“Our previous research was able to identify factors that correlate with collective intelligence,” the researcher reveals. “For instance, we found that having a lot of smart people in a group does not necessarily make the group smarter.  However, we also found a significant correlation between the individuals’ ability to reason about the mental states of others—an ability called Theory of Mind—and the collective intelligence of the group.”

What is the Theory of Mind?

Theory of mind is a relatively simple construct whereby we are capable of attributing certain mental states to ourselves. It’s a sense of self-awareness and covers things such as our desires, knowledge and beliefs.

A common way of testing for theory of mind is to undertake a test known as ’Reading of the Eyes’. This is a simple test whereby participants are shown photos of people’s eyes and asked to gauge the mood of the person simply by virtue of seeing their eyes.

For this particular study, participants were split into groups. Some of the groups could only talk to one another online, whereas others were allowed to do so in face to face settings. Each participant was given the eye test to do and had to complete some tasks that were designed to measure their respective group intelligence levels.

“Our findings reveal that the same key factors predict collective intelligence in both face-to-face and online teams,” the researchers reveal.  “Theory of Mind abilities are just as important to group effectiveness in online environments as they are in office environments. We hope that this insight will give organizational managers a new tool in predicting the success of online teams.”

The value of women in teams

Interestingly, the study also revealed that the number of women present in each team was found to influence the effectiveness of those teams. The results found that the more women that were present, the higher the collective intelligence of that team, suggesting that women are generally much more skilled in the theory of mind than men.

It is nonetheless interesting that something as seemingly physical as reading intention from ones eyes translates just as well to the online world. It underlines the key role of emotional intelligence in whatever setting we find ourselves.


Image: iStock




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