The Characteristics of the Most Successful Teams

The best teams share two common attributes, according to MIT research:

  1. Relatively equal contribution by each member
  2. Members with high emotional intelligence.

The first characteristic makes sense. A team led by a single dominant person will perform according to the strengths and weaknesses of the (benevolent) dictator. Another team in which the strengths of one member complement the weaknesses of another will certainly be stronger.

The second quality, high emotional intelligence, while talked about quite a bit in interviewing training and management training, surprised me. But understanding and anticipating others’ feelings seems to the lubricant to help teams achieve greater performance. Amazingly, emotional intelligence impacts team performance as much when working remotely, by email or Skype, as in person.

Interviewing for emotional intelligence can be tricky. After all, how can one reliably measure it in a 45 to 60 minute interview? Well, there’s a test for it. A Harvard research lab has published a 60 second test called “The Reading of the Eyes,” that asks respondents to gauge the emotion of a person using only their eyes, and this ability is highly correlated to emotional intelligence. I scored a 30 of 36. My wife, who is much smarter than I am, scored a near perfect 35 of 36. On the whole, women tend to score about 0.5 points more than men.

Both of these characteristics share one behavior in common: listening. Equal contribution from team members requires actively listening and considering other points of view. Interpreting feelings is listening of a different kind, less factual, more emotional.

The data proves what some have known for a long time: “The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so we may listen more and talk less.” (Epictetus)

Published 2015-01-20 in Best Practices 


I am partner at Redpoint. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 20,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.

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