Are you sensitive enough?

MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence found that the teams that are best at problem solving are distinguished not by IQ but by social sensitivity. This is measured by the "Reading the Mind in the Eye" test, which is also a test for empathy. The researchers' findings conclude that highly effective teams pay a lot of attention to each other and thus get higher levels of equal participation.

When I was discussing this work at a conference last month, one of the attendees asked a great question: But what do you do if you have a team that is not full of naturally empathetic people? Is it possible to teach empathy?

Bricks vs. Mortar

I'm always pretty skeptical of employers trying to change the personalities of the people who work for them. But, looking back over my own experience, I feel sure that you can teach people how to work more empathetically--that is, to consider more thoroughly the needs of other people and other disciplines.

One of the best CEOs I've ever known is Carol Vallone. She has a string of business successes to her name, including WebCT, Wimba, and Educate Online. When developing her annual business plans and budget, she asks that each department head argue the expenditures of other departments: Engineering would argue the case for the marketing spend, sales would argue for engineering's spend, and so on.

Vallone does this because it teaches everyone deep lessons in the core dependencies of the business, develops team camaraderie, and forces everyone to stand in one another's shoes. It wasn't designed as a lesson in empathy, but from a business perspective, that's exactly what it is.

We live in such an individualistic society that most people--and most companies--focus almost exclusively on individual performance. Yet what makes the most difference to teams and to companies isn't solo excellence but the connections between excellent people.

In other words, the bricks do matter--but really, they're nothing without the mortar. We mostly spend our time, effort, and money trying to find better bricks. We'd do better to work on the mortar.