Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Who’s the Smartest Team in the Room?

We’re excited to welcome a new contributor to the Crucial Skills Newsletter. Please enjoy a special introduction to Brian Wansink from author Joseph Grenny. We also encourage you to review VitalSmarts’ support of Brian Wansink here.

A Message from Joseph Grenny

If you haven’t met him yet, I want to be the first to introduce one of my newest VitalSmarts colleagues. I met Brian Wansink 15 years ago as part of our research for the book Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. We became fast friends. What has struck me most about Brian is not just that he is a renowned scholar whose hundreds of scholarly papers have been cited tens of thousands of times. It is not just that he is one of most clever and creative social scientists of our time. It is that he is a man of deep character and purpose. Fifteen years gives you a chance to see how people deal with the crescendos and diminuendos of life. You learn as much about a person from either extreme. Not only am I grateful for the way Brian’s research has improved my own life, but I am grateful for the inspiration he gives me to be a better man. Friends, meet Brian Wansink.

Who’s the Smartest Team in the Room?

Congratulations. You’ve just been asked to assemble the smartest team in your organization. This will be the Einstein, Ninja, Go-To, Delta Team that will have to solve the toughest problems you face: increase growth by 70%, cut costs by 25%, rebrand the company, and be prepared to act in case the CEO’s spouse repeatedly staggers up to monopolize the Christmas Party Karaoke again next year.

Who would you choose to be on your Brainiac Committee? You could line everybody up by their IQ scores and pick the ones at the head of the line, or you could pick people who have a cool British-sounding accent, or you could pick that one person on the second floor who was a runner-up nominee for the Supreme Court. But according to an article in the journal Science,1 if you really want the smartest team that will make the best decisions, you should use a different approach.

The article dives deep into collective intelligence. The authors analyzed 699 people who were working in teams of two or five to solve a wide range of problems like brainstorming, moral judgements, and negotiation.

As it turned out, two things differentiated the teams that made the smartest decisions from the rest. First, teams where one or two people did most of the talking made less intelligent decisions than groups where everyone spoke up. Sound familiar? It’s Crucial Conversations 101. It’s “Learn to Look” and “Make it Safe.” Making these two skills a part of your culture could increase your Meeting IQ.

Second, teams with higher percentages of females made better, more effective decisions. They were more sensitive about getting input from everyone, better able to reach compromises, and generally more effective. This is consistent with an earlier 2006 study by Wellesley professor Sumru Erkut, who showed that having two or more women on a corporate board brings “a collaborative leadership style that benefits boardroom dynamics by increasing listening, social support, and win-win problem-solving.”

The research shows women are less polarizing, more collaborative, and more likely to reach a solution that makes everyone happy. The New York Times columnist, Bruce Feiler, recounts a story of having dinner with a Google executive who said they always make sure to include more than one woman at every meeting. Their decision was based on this study. Turns out “diversity” isn’t just a fair word, it’s also a smart word.

The high-performing teams in the Science study tended to weigh options, encourage everyone to speak up, and to compromise better. These may be skills that come more naturally to some people than others, but regardless they are skills we can all learn. Train your people in the dialogue skills that enable everyone around the table—regardless of power, position, or authority—to speak up. And look carefully at the makeup of your teams. Be sure they are diverse enough, in gender and experience, to create a dynamic where thoughtful and smart decisions are made.

If you get it right, that diverse, dialogue-armed team of yours might also be able to solve that Christmas Party Karaoke problem. Hint: more karaoke, yes; more eggnog, no.

1Woolley, Anita Williams, Christopher F. Chabris, Alexander Pentland, Nada Hashmi, and Thomas W. Malone. “Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups.” Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science.

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

13 thoughts on “Who’s the Smartest Team in the Room?”

  1. Moose

    Hmmmmmm. A blog about acting with integrity hires and promotes Brian Wansink but fails to address the controversy that led to his retirement from academia.

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      Hi Moose, I am one of the editors of The Crucial Skills Newsletter and wanted to address your concern. VitalSmarts made a statement regarding Brian Wansink back in 2018 and we stand by it today. Please review here: We are hopeful our reader’s can find as much value in Brian’s future contribution as we do. Thanks.

  2. abbie brown

    I was a huge fan of Brian Wansink and then there was the controversy over his academic career which led to his retirement (demise). I wish you had addressed this in his introduction. You say he is a man of deep character and purpose and yet he allegedly fabricated his research. Not sure that I will continue to follow the blog.

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      Hi Abbie, as an editor of The Crucial Skills Newsletter, I wanted to address your concern. VitalSmarts made a statement regarding Brian Wansink back in 2018 and we stand by it today. Please review here: We are hopeful our readers can find as much value in Brian’s future contribution as we do. We hope you’ll stick with us.

      1. Sallie

        I like that Moose and Abbie raised the question (I was wondering, too). I like that Brittney responded. In the link to VitalSmarts’ 2018 statement, it says, “when we reference Wansink’s work, we need to acknowledge his misconduct.” So, shouldn’t a link to that statement have been included in Joseph’s introduction? That being said, this was a helpful article, I look forward to Brian Wansink’s future contributions, and I trust Joseph’s testimony and judgment.

        1. Britney

          Thank you for your comments Sallie. At VitalSmarts, we believe in redemption, it’s baked into our values and our skills: starting with heart, mastering your stories, and influencing change, to name a few. We have known Brian Wansink for years, long before a small portion of his work was thrown into question. As a long-time friend and colleague of Brian’s, Joseph has chosen to highlight the qualities he most admires, rather than past mistakes which we as an organization acknowledge, but also forgive. Thanks for also having an open mind and welcoming Brian to the newsletter. We really appreciate it.

  3. Jenny

    Thank you for this insight – my experience lines up with the idea that a more diverse team with a culture that values listening to and collaboration with other people produce great results.

    One frustration that I experience is that the advice “include at least two women on your team” often puts women in an awkward place. In male-centric corporate cultures, the traits you point out that women bring are often less valued, specifically because they are seen as weak or feminine.

    Women in our society are raised and taught to have those skills all through their lives only to find that a male-centric work environment values the opposite. But when they adopt the valued traits of the men, they are devalued for that too.

    So if a team that has this culture follows the letter of your advice and includes women on the team, yet continues to devalue those “feminine traits,” work life is now impossible for those women. Being suddenly on-the-spot to provide a perspective that you’re frequently ignored or devalued for having requires a certain level of mental gymnastics. Most people don’t have the stamina for that.

    If the only reason women are included is because having them there is supposed to magically bring stellar results, that team will be disappointed, because it’s the and not necessarily the gender of the women that bring those results.

    If corporate culture valued those traits- gathering input from everyone, making smart and effective compromises, social support, and win-win problem solving – it would not matter what gender the people are in the room, because EVERYONE would be taught those skills and to value them in the workplace. This would take us to the next level of gender equality.

    1. Jenny

      That was supposed to say “it’s the devalued traits and not the gender of the people on the team…”

    2. BrianWansink

      Hi Jenny,

      Those are excellent points. The study you mentioned was published almost 15 years ago. There’s some evidence that thinkings starting to shift — there’s a growing interest about unconscious biases in companies — but it’s still moving in baby steps.

      What I particularly liked is your notion that if we were all trained to gather “input from everyone, making smart and effective compromises, social support, and win-win problem solving” we wouldn’t need to use heuristics (e.g., “we need a couple women on this committee”). That is a great insight, and it’s a good one to aim for.

      For today, however, if that’s not something a company can do, at least the heuristic is a baby step in the right direction.

      Your thoughtful comment underscores that although we might be taking the right step, we can do better and we need to expect more from ourselves and from others on our journey.



      1. Jenny

        Thanks for your fast reply Brian! It’s surely true that we must accept baby steps on the way to true diversity. For those baby steps to be moving in a forward direction, it has to be more than surface-level.

        I do think that if a company wants to change it’s culture, and the leadership is truly dedicated to that goal, deliberately choosing diverse team members will improve things, especially if those leaders reinforce and support those choices.

        Just recognize that adding those diverse members demands even more work from those individuals – work that they are already doing and not getting credit for. Or sometimes even getting overlooked for.

        It’s interesting to me that you thought I was referring to a 15-year old study – in reality I was speaking from my experience today, working for and with one of the top ranking fortune-500 companies on the diversity scale. This progressive, technically innovative, global technology company has won awards for it’s diversity strides and it has indeed made excellent progress.

        And yet often women engineers still must work 2-3 times harder than men to get their voices heard and their work respected. This isn’t a study, it’s my workday.

        The practice of choosing women for teams specifically to increase effectiveness or productivity only works if the men on the team are willing to listen and work with the women. Otherwise this advice backfires and the men use it as an excuse to reinforce the old male-oriented culture. Same thing applies to any minority.

        I thank you again for listening, and taking some time to think about the perspective of the diverse members of those teams from a practical, real world standpoint. Changing culture isn’t easy or fast, but the more we include everyone’s ideas, the better it can get.

        1. Brian Wansink

          Hi Jenny,

          Thanks again for the great insight. Having diverse teams only for the sake of diversity is too costly. These diverse team members need to be carefully listened to, or it will just be a drain on an overburdened precious resource.

          This past Tuesday I had an interesting related conversation with a colleague. He was commenting that often the more introverted and more thoughtful members of a team (regardless of their gender) don’t get a chance to put their thoughts and meaning into the “shared pool” because all the rest of us are talking the whole time (I think he was looking at me).

          His solution was that if a team member hadn’t had a chance to share their thoughts, he would intentionally ask, “Karen, what are your thoughts on this?” That is, he’d give the person the space to share what they were thinking. It’s a great idea. Another baby step forward.



  4. Star Li

    My strategy in picking a team was always how good our movie montage would look when we introduced. Just kidding.

    I’ve always picked teams based on how our strengths complemented each other. For example, there would be a finance expert, a legal expert, a fundraising expert, and a jack-of-all-trades. Diversity truly is good for the bottom line.

    I’ve also liked to work with people who were smarter than me. I’ve never been insecure about that at all. Smarter people teach me a lot and make me look more smart too!

  5. Brian Wansink

    Diversity seems to be the key. Nicely put.

    What you say reminds me of a conversation I once heard about hiring biases: “A-level people want to hire A+ people so they can improve. B-level people want to hire C-level people so they will feel smarter.” You must fit in that A-level category.

    Thanks for your comment. I’m looking forward to the movie.

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