By: Sheila K. Collins, PhD.
As the first born in a family that eventually had six children, I was raised to consider myself a leader. My parents were clear; they expected me to behave since the younger children would likely do what they saw me do. So, I was to set the tone for the family, and if my younger siblings misbehaved, I was held accountable. Though it was somewhat flattering to imagine having that kind of power, the system often felt unfair to me, especially when it didn’t work, and my sibling group reacted with a mind of its own. I eventually held meetings with my siblings to get their input on how we were going to avoid getting in trouble with our parents.
Through the years I retained my interest and curiosity about the power of a group, and found ways to experience it often. For college, I chose a school, Monteith College, whose learning technology included, in addition to lectures, small group discussions. The college had a program where, if a student wanted to learn a particular subject and could find several other students with the same interest, a faculty member would assist the group in holding a credit course on the subject.
One summer I initiated a course through this “Cooperative Self-Education Program.” We students found the experience so rewarding, we voted to meet an additional session so we could finish what we’d set out to learn.
Groups have “collective intelligence,“ according to a Carnegie Mellon University professor, Anita Williams Wooley. Her research, carried out in Boston and Pittsburgh, randomly assembled groups of two to five people and gave them intellectually challenging tasks. As reported by Mark Roth, in his article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette January 10, 2011, the groups showed remarkably different levels of collective intelligence. The outcomes of the groups had no relationship to the IQ of the individuals in them, but there were three factors that make a difference in their performance:
1) How much group members paid attention to each other and asked questions,
2) How they shared the floor and took turns,
3) And the more women in the group, the better the group did.
(To my mind, this may be related to having more members with the ability and willingness to take the actions listed in numbers one and two.)
In InterPlay, the improvisational system I teach and practice, we often highlight what we call “the group body.” Listening deeply to ourselves and to one another, we create together, in the moment and on the spot. Group members take turns leading and following, and each person’s individual gifts are contributed to the whole. As the original convener or leader, I find being the leader of this group full of ease, surprise and discovery. Results often demonstrate that, all of us together are smarter and more creative than each of us are alone.
Dr. Wooley suggests that “as the world becomes more complex and employee’s skills more specialized, more and more of our problems will have solutions that lie at the intersection of individuals with specialties, so they need to be able to collaborate.”
As the political leaders of our nation engage in the task of coming up with solutions to our severe economic challenges, I would wish they were willing and able to let go of their old models of leadership. The “top-down, I have the right answer and you are wrong” posturing does not work in the complex, interrelated world that we’ve become. Perhaps we need to elect our representatives on the basis of whether they have the will and skill to listen to others, take turns, and allow the creative, collective intelligence of the group to emerge. And yes, there need to be more women at the table.
Sheila K. Collins directs InterPlay Pittsburgh and Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players, an improvisational troupe using the arts for noble purposes. Visit her website www.sheilakcollins.com