Entrepreneurs and managers are accustomed to thinking about how smart employees can raise the collective IQ of their teams. But perhaps they should give more thought to how the design of their teams can raise the collective IQ of their employees.
That's the argument of a fascinating MIT Sloan Management Review article from a pair of professors who insists that "the way that work is designed does more than shape whether people have the opportunity to use their cognition: Work design can also accelerate learning."
Small changes to how you dole out tasks, monitor workers, and manage feedback can make your people functionally more intelligent, insist Sharon Parker of Australia's Curtin University and Gwenith Fisher, a Colorado State University psychologist, in the piece. They offer leaders a few simple, actionable examples.
1. Challenging tasks
We all know that if you sit around all day and never challenge your muscles, they'll grow weaker and weaker. It should be no surprise then that the same applies to your mind. If you don't challenge your employees' brains with demanding, complex tasks, you're basically inviting them to become dumber in their approach to their jobs.
"If a salesperson has a highly complex job in which they repeatedly sort out challenging contracts, they have the opportunity to apply their knowledge of contracting, and they engage in problem-solving, which relies on cognitive processes like working memory," the authors offer as an example. But if that same sales rep is restricted to offering the identical deal again and again, referring all challenging cases to her boss, "diminished opportunities for using cognition not only affect learning in the short term but can influence whether fluid intelligence declines as one ages," they conclude.
Giving every employee, be they a salesperson, customer service rep, or janitor, scope to solve complex problems and apply their skills requires a second ingredient: autonomy. Maximizing your team's intelligence means trusting them enough to really use their brains in ways that matter.
Not only does that exercise their minds and keep them engaged, but it also creates a laboratory-like setting where they can test out and refine ideas. Job autonomy "allows people the chance to explore and experiment with different strategies," the authors write.
Giving employees the scope to tinker with tricky problems can yield impressive benefits over time. One study showed that when machine operators at a factory were allowed to tackle more equipment problems themselves, machine downtime decreased 70 percent long term. Employees learned their equipment inside and out and not only had to call in specialized help less often, but also figured out how to prevent faults from happening in the first place.
3. The right kind of feedback
Once you've given your people challenging tasks and the freedom to try to solve them, the final step is to ensure they get plenty of feedback on how their efforts turn out. Though the authors explain that the exact type of feedback matters.
"Strong evaluative feedback, such as personal judgments about how well one is performing, causes people to focus on themselves in an anxious way, which can become demotivating and distracting," they explain. Performance worries can actually offset any gains in skill from the feedback with the net result that workers get worse the more you try to teach them.
To avoid this trap the authors recommend "a supportive feedback environment in which, for example, feedback comes from credible peers or supervisors, involves acknowledging positive performance, is specific and provided frequently, and is delivered in a supportive and task-oriented manner." So tell your people what is working and what isn't constantly and constructively, but don't be overcritical or personal with your feedback.
Don't make these intelligence-killing mistakes
Parker and Fisher also caution that you shouldn't counteract your efforts to design intelligence-boosting work by also committing intelligence-killing mistakes. They list common factors that make teams functionally dumber such as "long work hours, a high workload, time pressure, high levels of role conflict (being pulled in different directions to fulfill different work goals), or exposure to interpersonal conflict such as incivility, harassment, or bullying." But you're hopefully already trying to avoid this rogue's gallery of workplace culture sins.
Check out the complete article for lots more details, but you can also start implementing these basic insights today. Trust your people with meaningful challenges and nurture their efforts with thoughtful feedback and you just might find your team quickly become way smarter than you ever suspected.